What, no camels?
You can deck out bears in tutus, throw in spiffy lighting effects, toss ribbons into the audience, have Santa flying skyward like Peter Pan, and still Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular falls fully into the category of kitsch.
Not that kitsch is bad, at least not by the standards of the crowd that showed up for opening night Friday at Verizon Theatre, in a tour presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth.
And to be fair, no one would want to do away with the Rockettes, who are really the backbone and purpose of the show. They epitomize glamour, whether playing irresistible prancing reindeer, snappy toy soldiers, or just descending from a vertical staircase clad in the tiniest of shimmering ice-skater like attire.
For the Rockettes are always—well, the Rockettes—polished, leggy, slender, closely matched in height, and although not all natural blonds, they may as well have been—because that was the effect. You can’t tell one from the other, but that is the point—to have a uniformity in body and face so as to give the effect of 18 cut-out paper dolls able to move as one.
They set the mood of make-believe the minute the show starts as reindeer, delicately pawing the ground with their black hooves, camel-haired boots and body shapewear of tawny cinnamon. They prance, they paw, they move in tandem with tiny, crisp, emphatic steps, smiling winningly as they go, and taking the reins with the eagerness of racehorses finally let loose from on open gate.
They are, if possible, even more adorable in “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” which has been part of the show since its inception in 1933. Two troops march in from opposite sides, smartly attired in boxed-shaped white trousers, red jackets, and towering helmets festooned with white, bobbing pompoms.
With military precision, they march in tiny steps, keeping always in razor sharp formation. At one point, they form one long row, one half facing one direction and the other the opposite. They turn slowly, so perfectly in line that it looks like they are revolving on ball-bearings. An officer fires off a cannon, places a red cushion at the end of the lined-up soldiers, and gives them a shove. Slowly, slowly, slowly, they topple backwards like dominoes.
Shows like this have to throw in a few changes, and the most successful is its new “New York at Christmas.” Using computerized video effects, the scene begins with a double-decker bus in front of Radio City Music Hall. The Rockettes, in smart white caps and jackets, descend on the bus, and we watch the bus glide down Fifth Avenue, past a snowy Central Park, across Park Avenue and Rockefeller Center, and end up in Times Square, where neon lights throw huge images of the moving Rockettes. It’s quite impressive to see New York come alive so vividly.
Other than Santa being necessary to travel by sleigh, I would be just as happy if he disappeared. On the other hand, the live camels, donkey and sheep that used to enliven the Nativity scene have been unaccountably ditched. That’s a pity. While high-tech effects are welcome, low tech effects—like a parade of camels—have even more surprise value.
◊ Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.