Radio City Christmas Spectacular is Spectacular

By Rachel Straus

In 1932 BBC Television held it first broadcast, the Polaroid camera came into being, and Russell Markert made Radio City Music Hall a popular destination. The choreographer’s bevy of high-kicking girls—soon to be called the Rockettes—became the Art Deco house’s main event. If it weren’t for the ladies with the legs, I wonder whether the vaudevillian enterprise would have lasted. From its kick start Radio City ran rife with financial troubles. Then there was the deepening Depression. Then Hollywood movies made the seven show a day format as moribund as the Polaroid. But the Rockettes persevered, at least at Christmas time. On November 5th I went to the 78th season of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular with one question in mind: What is the show’s staying power?

Here’s my bullet-point answer:

Continuity is powerful, especially in a culture where we wipe the slate clean every election. The favorite number in the Christmas Spectacular is Markert’s 1933 The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers. Three-dozen ramrod straight dancers, costumed in high-plume hat toy-soldier costumes, undergo military precise kaleidoscopic arrangements across the stage’s airplane hanger space. While the show began this year with a 3-D film of Santa on his sleigh, careening like Spider Man through Manhattan’s spires, it’s this old-fashioned nod to what all kids do—arrange toys and then knock them over—that makes the finale so childishly satisfying. In the last moments the dancers stack themselves against each other like Dominos and one-by-one fall backward like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, until they are all flattened against the floor like deflated balloons.

Sex sells. In Let Christmas Shine, the Rockettes appear in silver lame mini-dresses on multiple levels, recalling Busby Berkeley’s Ziegfeld Follies. Their legs, arms, and breastbones are bare. They start kicking. The fellow seated next to me smiled ear to ear.

Kitsch is as American as apple pie. Where else can you get Santa, Jesus, and Tchaikovsky in one sitting? Santa, played by Charles Edward Hall, is as bloated and jolly as expected. Dancing pigs and a teenager performing in pointe shoes are featured in the Tchaikovsky Nutcracker number, brashly played by the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra. Meanwhile, the nativity scene resounds as a multicultural faux pas. On cue, the nations of the world (and one live camel) bow low to the Savior of Christianity. W would approve.

• The production is seamlessly executed and the special effects are state of the art. In the 1940s, Radio City’s shows boasted miraculously appearing elevators, turning stages and huge set pieces, which amplified the Rockettes’ unison tapping, kicking and posing. Today, the organization employs Batman + Robin Productions to create LED content. In the number New York at Christmas, LED images are projected on the windows of a Gray Line double-decker bus, which spins across the stage. Seated inside are the Rockettes, preening and then peeling away parts of their costumes like runway models.  

The show is up until December 30. If you want to see good choreography, don’t go. If you want a whiff of old-time vaudeville with a wallop of techno-glitz, nothing compares to the Christmas Spectacular whose calling card remains the high-kicking Rockettes.




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