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The New York Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 26, 2016

The Rockettes
Photo by MSG Entertainment

For more than eight decades, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall has been a holiday bastion of glittering brightness: a bellwether of shimmering fantasy in an all-too-unpredictable and often unsafe world. Maybe it's tough to make that show soar sky-high every year, but in all the times I've seen it (too many to count at this point), the people involved have never gotten it wrong. Now that we're in the second season of them, it's safe to wonder why the same organization, and those same lively, leggy Rockettes, have so much trouble getting the midseason equivalent right.

This year's effort is called, simply, New York Spectacular, and you'd think it would be a slam-dunk. Glorious sets depicting Manhattan's storybook locales; sparkling production numbers, based on songs about the city (of which there are thousands), putting those 36 lithe dancers to perfect use; and a stirring, caffeinated tribute to the always-electrified Greatest City on Earth. In other words, all the feel-good froth of the Christmas Spectacular, just, you know, not at Christmastime.

But an unflattering dark streak runs through this 85-minute evening, ensuring that, although it may be many things, unbridled fun is never really one of them. Begin, if you choose, with the plot, which has been scripted by no less a Broadway heavy-hitter than Douglas Carter Beane. A teen girl named Emily and her sub-tween brother Jacob get separated from their parents during a trip to New York, and spend the whole day terrified and alone, seeing the sights but fully aware that a bleak future awaits them if they don't find Mom and Dad quick.

We're not supposed to dwell on how little sense this makes, but it's unavoidable. Even if Emily doesn't have her smartphone (Mom takes it to force her daughter to pay attention to the city), none of the eight million other people around have one she could use to call her parents? Or they can't find a policeman who might be able to help them? Really, the only solution is for Emily and Jacob to tour the attractions where Mom and Dad met and fell in love, in vague, vain hope that they might run into them there?

Beyond curb-stomping credulity, it sets up the show as one based on loss and fear, rather than joy, which is an odd, frequently unsettling approach. Much of what ensues follows suit, with the Rockettes' big specialties including a thumping subway number; a Wall Street satire set to a partially rapped remix of John Kander and Fred Ebb's "Money, Money" from the film version of Cabaret; a Fashion Week runway strut, and an Egyptian parade, with all 36 ladies exploding from a towering sarcophagus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wearing full pharaoh garb. And their big finale is a discordant, shadowy mashup of Edward Kleban and Marvin Hamlisch's "One" from A Chorus Line and (shock of shocks) Kander and Ebb's "Theme from New York, New York."

The Rockettes
Photo by MSG Entertainment

Only once does their cavorting take on a genuinely celebratory tone: when they transform into flowers during Emily and Jacob's journey to Central Park and splash around to "Singing in the Rain," complete with petal-to-the-metal umbrellas. There's nothing innovative or edgy about the scene, it's just the Rockettes doing what they do best, but that's why it stops the show. It's the purest expression of their, and the Radio City Spectacular, ethos: unadorned, unashamed, and unapologized for.

Everything else in director-choreographer Mia Michaels's production, however, feels as if it's making excuses. It's not that Patrick Fahey's sets, as augmented by Moment Factory's hyperactive projections, aren't splashy and lush; that Esosa's costumes aren't swirlingly colorful and plentiful; or that Alain Lortie's lights aren't going all controlled-crazy trying to keep everything visible. Nor is it that the performers, who this year include such Main Stem names as Euan Morton, Kecia Lewis, Kacie Sheik, and Lilla Crawford (who plays a strangely hard-bitten Emily against Vincent Crocilla's parodically enthusiastic Jacob) aren't up to the challenge of making this the most it can be within the restrictions they have. It's that those restrictions, for no discernible reason, exist in the first place.

It's tempting to want to cut Beane some slack. After all, he's trying to write around the physical and choreographic set pieces that were created for the show last year, when it was called the Spring Spectacular, which means he must include places like the Statue of Liberty and the observation deck of the Empire State Building, and a series of talking statues, even if he is unable to figure out what to do with any of them. Even so, Beane can be much better than this: He's one of the current theatre's best line men, but this time scores only one solid joke (in the final scene, no less), and makes one ultra-obvious dig at Donald Trump. Family entertainment isn't Beane's stock-in-trade: irony and quips are, and this isn't really the place for those.

So, strangely, even though the Spring Spectacular was more of a departure and more of a mess—a Lenny Wolpe-Laura Benanti star vehicle with a side of Derek Hough, and a story (by Joshua Harmon) that was at once more clich├ęd, more intricate, and more fun than this one—it also was closer to being of the proper spirit. Here, only one scene comes truly alive: when Emily and Jacob are soft-shoeing up and down the crimson steps of the TKTS booth, led by the talking, singing, and dancing statue of Mr. Broadway himself, George M. Cohan (embodied by an excellent Danny Gardner).

The unfettered, improvisatory nature of the moment, both in keeping with what's come before and utterly unexpected, transports you to a fairy-tale, anything-can-happen Midtown in a way nothing else does. Still, when three people and a (relatively) small staircase can fill the stage better than the Rockettes combined with a 16-man dance ensemble and another dozen or so principal actors, something is seriously amiss. Unlike with the Christmas show to end all Christmas shows, the bigger the New York Spectacular gets, the smaller it seems. That's worrisome enough that the Radio City folks might want to take one more trip to the drawing board. Maybe the third time's the charm?

The New York Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes
Through August 7
Radio City Music Hall, 1260 6th Avenue between 50th Street & 51st Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

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