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Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Rockettes
Photo provided by MSG Entertainment

While entering the auditorium at Radio City Music Hall to see this year's version of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, I was approached by a bubbly middle-age woman whose broad grin and dancing eyes made her seem more eager than most of the kids who were streaming in around us. "Aren't you excited?", she said, trying (and failing) to stifle her enthusiasm. "I come every year, and never get tired of it."

It's the inspiration of such wonderment, even in (us) past-school-age and more cynical folks, that keeps the Christmas Spectacular going—and going strong—even after more than eight decades of lighting up the Manhattan holiday season. No matter how many times you see it (and I've seen it my fair share), it always seems to live and breathe anew, creating a time-, space, and world-weariness displacement effect that melts away stress and whatever frustration you may have at the state of the theatre for 90 minutes.

If that's not magic, what is? And, as always, that's not where the prestidigitation stops. From the overture, played by an orchestra of atypically huge size (under the music direction of Kevin Stites), to the opening scene (the Rockettes as reindeer!), from the 3D sleigh ride to the dancing rag dolls, from the double-decker bus to the giant flying snowflakes, the evening is a masterful example of showmanship, dedicated to the proposition of giving the audience everything it wants—and then some.

It's unimpeachable logic, particularly when the 36 Rockettes are onstage, singing, dancing, and glittering in the flawless synchronization that's made them a natural treasure. But even when the focus is elsewhere, such as the comedic toy Nutcracker ballet (which always elicits impressed "oohs" and adored "awws," most audibly when the baby teddy bears shyly strut their stuff) or on the close-focus cityscape of the "New York at Christmas" number (replete with real, live ice skaters), it all just works. Because sometimes bigger really is better.

This is an "off" year for the Christmas Spectacular, in that there aren't huge new scenes or astonishing surprises in store for those who've seen the show in recent incarnations. (Most of the innovation, so to speak, seems to have gone into the Spring Spectacular, which premiered in March and is slated to return next summer with a different title.) Director-choreographer Julie Branam has made, at best, small adjustments and refinements. I noticed a couple of tap sections in the frenetic "Twelve Days of Christmas" and the Times Square portion of "New York at Christmas" that I could swear looked and played slightly differently than they did in the Linda Haberman days (though she's still credited with designing both), but that's about it. Everyone involved knows better than to mess with a winning formula.

Of course, that involves keeping the elaborate sets (Patrick Fahey), zillions of costumes (variously by Gregg Barnes, Frank Krenz, and the late Martin Pakledinaz), splashy lights (David Agress), and eye-popping projections (Batwin + Robin Productions) at full ferocity. But more than that, it involves paying appropriate tribute to the never-changing spiritual centerpieces of the enterprise, which have been around from the very beginning: "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and the Living Nativity.

Both remain breathtaking, in no small part, because of the old-school show-biz reasoning behind them. The former is fueled by the Rockettes' consummate artistry in dispensing Busby Berkeley levels of movement through little more than an array of stiff-armed and stiff-legged steps (and, of course, the rightfully gasp-inducing slow-motion collapse at its climax), the latter distinguishes itself by stripping away most of the commercial trappings on which the show is built and returning the focus to Bible stories of the birth of Jesus that are the reason Christmas is celebrated in the first place.

I'd venture a guess that it's these numbers, more than any others, that draw return visitors time and time and time again because they represent the season even more than the larger umbrella of the Christmas Spectacular itself. The woman who couldn't stop chattering as we went to our seats couldn't resist citing "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" as her favorite in the few seconds we spent together. That's just how much it means to her. And as long as the Spectacular stays at its current high level of accomplishment, she and countless thousands of others are likely to feel that same way for decades yet to come.

Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular
Through January 3
Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, 1260 Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue) between West 50th and West 51st Streets
Tickets and current performance schedule:

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