Don’t start spreading the news just yet: Arriving one year late, extensively retooled, and with a surfeit of undeniably impressive stagecraft ($25 million worth), Radio City’s “New York Spring Spectacular” still feels like more of a tourist-trap one-off than a kitsch perennial to rival the music hall’s venerable Christmas show. A gaudy valentine to iconic Manhattan landmarks and cultural institutions, by way of a product reel for producer Harvey Weinstein’s other house brands, this haphazard revue is decidedly more spectacle than spectacular — one best reserved for the great unwashed who keep “I♡NY” T-shirts and coffee mugs flying off the shelves.
When it was first announced in 2013, the now-“Spring Spectacular” was known as “Heart and Lights,” with a book by “I Am My Own Wife” Tony and Pulitzer winner Doug Wright, direction by longtime Rockettes choreographer Linda Haberman and a plot described as being about “two cousins who discover their grandmother’s surprising past by uncovering the secrets of the city she loved.” But in March 2014, less than a week before previews were set to begin, presenter MSG Entertainment abruptly pulled the plug on the show, stating only that “additional work” was needed and postponing the opening by an entire 12 months.
In the interim, Wright and Haberman were given the heave-ho and Weinstein came aboard, bringing with him a slew of Broadway heavyweights including “creative director” Diane Paulus and songwriters Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy (all working concurrently on Weinstein’s “Finding Neverland” musical), director-choreographer Warren Carlyle (“After Midnight”) and book writer Joshua Harmon (“Bad Jews”).
The slickly produced but artistically bland result now hangs a dozen production numbers of various sizes on a paper-thin plot about Bernie (Lenny Wolpe), a veteran New York tour guide about to be downsized by Jenna (Laura Benanti), a tech-sector billionaire who plans to replace the real Bernie with a digital avatar. Enter Jack (“Dancing With the Stars” champ Derek Hough), a Clarence-like angel who’s been promised his wings by God (the disembodied voice of Whoopi Goldberg) if he can help Bernie to save his job. When Jack persuades Jenna to accompany Bernie on his final tour, the stage is set for a travelogue of familiar places and faces (a who’s-who of special guest stars seen in pre-recorded bits on a giant LED screen), set to the beat of pop hits and Broadway showtunes — plus a few unmemorable Barlow-Kennedy originals.
First stop: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Jenna, revealed as a onetime aspiring dancer, twirls to an abridged version of “I Could Have Danced All Night” before ceding the stage to a chorus line of reanimated ancient Egyptians and New Guinea totems (think “Night at the Museum: The Musical”). Then it’s on to Central Park, where Jose de Creeft’s bronze Alice in Wonderland sculpture comes to life (voiced by Bella Thorne) and a sudden downpour sends Jack into a rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain” — evidence that Hough’s vocal chords are not nearly so dexterous as his lower extremities. Still, the number ranks among the show’s most enjoyable, thanks to the elaborate rain effects and a small army of yellow-rain-slickered Rockettes, who provide the slipping and sliding Hough with tap-dancing backup (the splashing and tapping amplified, at the performance reviewed, to ear-splitting levels).
Also on the itinerary: Times Square, where Jenna belts out a Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman ditty about turning Broadway virtual (“Bring It Home”) while flanked by Paddington Bear and a giant “Finding Neverland” billboard; and Fashion Week, a protracted sequence involving copious plugs for the Weinstein-produced “Project Runway” (with cameos by former judges Isaac Mizrahi, Zac Posen and Diane von Furstenberg), and Rockettes in light-bulb dresses doing a nice, Fosse-esque soft-shoe to Demi Lovato’s “Neon Lights.”
Still to come: detours to Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, the Empire State Building (another one of the better numbers, with a 30-piece big band playing Jerome Kern) and even Radio City itself (immodestly positioned as the most transformative stop on the tour). But the “Spring Spectacular” may find its most fitting match of style and content in a bit that sees Patience and Fortitude, the marble lions who man the entrance to the New York Public Library (here voiced by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler), serve as emcees for an audience-participation game show.
This is a busy night at the theater, complete with old-fashioned 3D glasses for one sequence, synchronized light-up wristbands for another, and myriad other distractions designed to keep one from noticing how soulless the whole thing is — as high-tech yet impersonal as a show Jenna herself might have conceived. It doesn’t help that the resourceful Benanti is stuck playing a decidedly Y2K-era caricature of a numbers-crunching technocrat, or that Hough, for all his unassailable hoofing, proves a more plasticine stage presence than the several large animatronic puppets that appear throughout the evening. As usual, the most special effects here are the Rockettes themselves, who reliably elevate the proceedings with their high-stepping kicks and geometrically elaborate configurations — a pleasure to behold, regardless of the season.