Broadway might have been largely silenced by strike action through Thanksgiving and perhaps beyond, but there's comfort to be found in the fact that up to five shows a day, the Rockettes are still tirelessly pounding the stage with diabolical precision and highkicking to the digitally enhanced heavens in the sparkling 75th anniversary production of "The Radio City Christmas Spectacular."
Broadway might have been largely silenced by strike action through Thanksgiving and perhaps beyond, but there’s comfort to be found in the fact that up to five shows a day, the Rockettes are still tirelessly pounding the stage with diabolical precision and highkicking to the digitally enhanced heavens in the sparkling 75th anniversary production of “The Radio City Christmas Spectacular.” Cynics will sneer that this aggressively cheerful institution is part ’70s-style variety show, part sanitized Vegas act, part Hallmark horror. But there’s no denying the formula works, and director-choreographer Linda Haberman has spruced up the show with a seamless mix of tradition and technology.
As much a venerable New York holiday entertainment staple as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or “The Nutcracker” at City Ballet, the Radio City show is so high on energy, effervescence, manufactured awe and unapologetic, magic-of-Christmas sentimentality it’s pointless to resist. Even one malfunctioning star-tipped glowstick (distributed with program to be waved upon instruction) and another lost underfoot couldn’t sour the enjoyment of this critic and his date.
Thankfully, the 3-D “Spectacular Specs” worked fine, employed in a dizzying sleigh-ride sequence that travels from the North Pole skies to a pristine New York, with polar bears lobbing snowballs and kamikaze geese causing much of the audience to duck down in their seats before a smooth touchdown on Sixth Avenue.
The show’s diamond anniversary is marked by a series of impressive innovations but traditional elements also have undergone spit-and-polish treatment. In previous editions, “The Living Nativity” reportedly was a solemn tableau somewhat incongruously wedged in among the glitzy kicklines. This year, the lavishly costumed Bethlehem baby shower — complete with bored-looking sheep, camels and a donkey onstage — is smoothly integrated, its enactment springing from a reading by a teenage boy to his younger siblings.
Enhanced by slick LED content on a 90-foot rear screen, Santa’s workshop, staffed by Tyrolean elves, is expanded into something akin to “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” with the Rockettes at their best as cancan-dancing rag dolls. The youngest audience members get their fix of the soft-and-cuddlies with “Nutcracker” excerpts danced under a Christmas tree by assorted teddy bears. There’s also “Here Comes Santa Claus,” a terrific Busby Berkeley-esque sequence choreographed by Robert Longbottom, with an army of real and digital dancing Kris Kringles.
Best of the vintage numbers is “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” from 1933. Costumed by Vincente Minnelli in his pre-MGM days, the Rockettes weave in and out of flawless military formations before collapsing under toy cannon fire like a slo-mo line of dominoes.
Of the two splashy, entirely new production numbers, “New York at Christmas” best shows off the dazzling coordination in Haberman’s mastery of mixing live-action singing and dancing with elaborate filmed material. With the Rockettes clad in winter whites aboard a double-decker sightseeing bus and the animated footage whizzing all over Manhattan, the sequence creates a convincing illusion of being on a high-speed musical tour.
The live side is slightly let down by a lackluster skating interlude in Central Park, but that doesn’t detract from the extended scene’s overall success. While the use of CGI projections in theater in recent years has been a hit-and-miss experimentation process, this example reps a far more accomplished exhibition of digital scenery than Broadway flop “The Woman in White,” for instance.
The other major new addition is “Let Christmas Shine,” a spiffy, retro-flavored number with the Rockettes decked out in silver and studded with Swarovski crystals.
The well-populated orchestra (occasionally rising from the pit), the featured singers, and Santa (Charles Edward Hall), presiding over everything like a benevolent guide, all do creditable work here but it’s the 36 hoofers smiling, tapping and kicking in robotic unison that own the show. They might be stronger on precision than versatility, but with 1 million-plus ticket-buyers per year for the Radio City yulefest, no one seems to be complaining.