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AUDIENCE REVIEW: Too Much Trying to Happen in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular
The Radio City Rockettes
Radio City Music Hall has been presenting its Christmas Spectacular for more than 85 years. The show, which has been altered many times since its creation, was most recently revamped in 2014, under the directorship of Julie Branam. Having seen the “gold cast” perform on Sunday November 24th, I have to say all I could do was wonder wistfully what the show looked like 40 years ago. With the exception of a few scenes, I found the Christmas Spectacular to be a disappointment.
Right off the bat, the music (arranged by Kevin Stites) felt painfully loud, and the quality of sound bore no relation to the orchestra that I could see performing in front of me. Music was accompanied by showy projections on the curtain and theater walls, and eventually a strangely animated mini-film was revealed on stage. The introductory film told a story whose only point seemed to be to feature two of the show’s many sponsors: Chase Bank and Pepperidge Farm. Following the glorified ad, a countdown clock provided an anticlimactic segway into the next part of the show.
The narrative arc of the Christmas Spectacular is overseen by the character of Santa Clause. Various Christmas-themed anecdotes, musical numbers, and subplots—the main one featuring two brothers searching for the perfect gift for their sister—provide the context for a handful of Rockette dance numbers. The dancing, though not to my taste, was impressive. There is something truly riveting about seeing an enormous glittery cast moving in perfect, precise coordination. However the rest of the show seemed, at best, an unobjectionable distraction, and at worst, actually bad.
For some reason, the overt nod to sponsors during the introduction wasn’t enough. Mrs. Clause also had to make a later appearance with a tray of Pepperidge Farm cookies, and a virtual tour bus driving through the city passed any number of nameless buildings as well as Chase Bank. The addition of a sub-plot revolving around finding the perfect gift turned the show into a capitalist extravaganza. Simultaneously, the show’s creators seemed to think that spectacle for the sake of spectacle was not enough. Some kind of moral element was also needed—hence the nativity scene, bible reading, and sappy end to the gift-finding subplot. The resulting cocktail of moral messaging and shameless consumerism made everything but the dancing almost painful to watch. Not to mention that the subplot itself was weirdly dated, neither moving nor funny, and accompanied by ugly (and 3D!) animations.
Although I found the placement of the nativity scene a bit odd, and wondered whether in 2019 it is really okay for a cast of white people to play Balthasar’s (Ethiopian) entourage, it was at least visually pleasant. And I did truly enjoy a few of the Rockette numbers and ensemble scenes. “March of the Wooden Soldiers,” a Christmas Spectacular standby since its creation in the 1930’s, is still one of the show’s most charming and entertaining pieces of choreography. It’s no coincidence that it is also one of the only breaks from showy sets, smiles, and costumes.
In retrospect, all I had really prepared myself to see was the Rockettes. I didn’t understand that at its heart the Christmas Spectacular is really a kind of variety show, and has historically included additional elements such as singing, film, sub plots, and other media. At the end of the day, I think what left me disappointed was this: Christmas is one of the few times of year when people really get into tradition. We put up our trees at the same time every year, put the same decorations on those trees, go to the same church services, sing the same carols, and see the nutcracker for the hundred and first time. I was expecting the Christmas Spectacular to be an old-timey, unchanged celebration of Christmas tradition. Instead, what I saw was a flashy, computer animated, over-amplified, “story” that required 3-D glasses.