Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Stage

Review: 'Radio City Christmas Spectacular' with the Rockettes an explosion of holiday cheer

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular, currently running at the Straz Center in Tampa, is a decadent, colorful buffet of everything sweet about the holiday. No shopping woes, no annoying in-laws, just plenty of sparkles and Santas and pure yuletide cheer.

Sandwiched between heavy hitters The Book of Mormon, which ran Nov. 12-24, and The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, coming Jan. 14-19, Christmas Spectacular is a treacly treat in the Straz's impressive Broadway season.

In fact, it's the perfect festive family outing — everyone from 1 to 92 will get a kick out of Radio City's long-running production and its famed Rockettes dancers. Thursday's opening night audience was delighted with just about everything: they clapped for the costume changes, cheered the lighting effects and couldn't get enough of the Rockettes kick line. (You don't have to wait long to see the show's trademark act — they start kicking within the first number.)

If you've never seen a Rockettes show, you should know it's mostly one big dance number. There's an attempt at plot in the second act, involving two brothers and their belief in Santa, but like the rest of the show it's surface deep.

And that's okay, because it sets up two of the second act's most enjoyable scenes, "Christmas Memories," a playful romp through a toy shop, and the crowd pleaser "Here Comes Santa Claus," which dresses up the large cast in identical Santa outfits and makes clever use of an LED screen to show how Santa can be in so many places at once.

Those are just two out of 12 scenes that make up Christmas Spectacular, which features a cast of 47, including 20 Rockettes. Santa (Brent Bateman) serves as the emcee of the night and, along with the Radio City Singers, helps fill the time between scenes when the dancers are changing in and out of seven different costumes.

"Sleighride," the first scene of the show, sets the wintery mood with lighting made to look like snow and the Rockettes dressed as reindeer that Santa corrals for a trip to Tampa. The audience ate it up. One of the weirdest scenes is "The Nutracker," which features young Clara surrounded by classic Nutcracker characters ... dressed as teddy bears. Polar, panda, Russian — 16 of them dance around the stage in what is certainly the most disconcerting Tchaikovsky tribute I've seen. The whole thing was less precious Christmas story, more Miley Cyrus concert. A young girl in the row behind me summed it up best: "This is crazy."

Two of the show's most iconic scenes, "The Parade of Wooden Soldiers" and "The Living Nativity," have been part of Radio City's holiday tradition since 1933; they don't disappoint. The Rockettes as wooden soldiers are especially impressive, dressed in stiff costumes with plume hats and moving with impeccable precision as they march in and out of various formations. The number's closer, in which the Rockettes line up and slowly — and impossibly — fall like dominoes onto each other, is a show-stopper.

New number "New York at Christmas," in which the dancers board a life-size double-decker bus and take the audience on a tour of New York City, made such good use of the stage's vibrant 50-foot LED background screen that I was nostalgic for my Christmas trip to New York City a few years ago.

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