Yuletide Kicks 

The Rockettes' holiday extravaganza delivers all-American merriment.

Earning their stripes: The Rockettes wow 'em at the State.
  • Earning their stripes: The Rockettes wow 'em at the State.
When The Nutcracker flew the coop two years ago, Cleveland's holiday theater season lost its sheen. The city found itself in a depressed mill-town funk. Yet, last Friday, when Mayor-elect Jane Campbell stepped onto the State Theatre's splendiferously decked-out stage in her jade-green evening gown, she had good news to deliver: This would be the most profitable December in the history of Playhouse Square.

This happy state of affairs is thanks to New York's gift to Cleveland, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. The lucrative show is as fine-tuned to American sensibilities as a church revival, a weekend in Vegas, or a sale on home appliances. Theatergoers come out for it in droves.

Capitalizing on our craving for spectacle, this wondrous Christmas megashow, which dates back to 1932, has in its present tour 200 costumes whimsical enough for Oz and plush enough for royalty. Contributing to the display are Wendy the Camel, Sarah the Goat, four thespian sheep, a dewy-eyed donkey, and four dancing midgets.

Because we are also eminently susceptible to sentiment, there's a manger scene that would shame DeMille, a Nutcracker dance between a prepubescent princess and a brigade of teddy bears that would turn Walt Disney bilious with envy, and a musical love scene between Mr. and Mrs. Claus, danced and sung with the breezy, affectionate charm of Astaire and Rogers. Those who don't fall prey to the dancing four-foot snowmen and seven-foot cha-cha-ing Christmas trees will be sure to succumb to the relentless Christmas music, rendered with the lushness of 14 Viennese choirs. It ranges from the Irving Berlin songs written for White Christmas and Holiday Inn, to familiar standards so perky you want to spank them, to traditional Latin carols and hymns so solemn they would bring tears to a rabbi's eyes.

The producers, however, have wisely inserted enough vulgarity and bad taste to keep the show from floating away in a bubble of sanctimonious goodness. Jolly Old St. Nick, so wise and kindly in Miracle on 34th Street, here discos, John Travolta-style, through the Flats. In a moment of breathtaking condescension, he joyfully proclaims: "Santa loves those Indians! Ho! Ho! Ho!" and later, he informs us that Cleveland is a "magical place to go." For those who prefer their Christmas frolics performed in Day-Glo, there's a rendition of Mame's "We Need a Little Christmas" in the worst fashion excesses of the '60s.

Above all, no patriotic American can get enough of that famous Rockette synchronization. The 18 women who make up the Cleveland company are all wholesome enough to be the progeny of a love match between Pat Boone and Debbie Reynolds. In perfect unison, they impersonate reindeer, toy soldiers, rag dolls, jolly Santas, and blindingly pure snowflakes. When they break into their immortal kick lines, it is every bit as reassuring as seeing Old Glory still flying by dawn's early light.

There is a resistant subculture, impervious to snowflake kick lines, who get migraines from silver bells. The most noted example being J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, who, upon seeing the Radio City show, commented, "Old Jesus would have puked." Those of such inclination can turn to the emerging cult classic Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This peculiar musical, presented in a splendid production by Cleveland Public Theatre, is basically a monologue masquerading as a rock concert.

The eponymous transgendered diva radiates intoxicating glamour. The creators, librettist John Cameron Mitchell and composer/lyricist Stephen Trask, have forged a figure of pure theatricality: equal parts cool, ironic Teutonic tart and childlike masochist. This intriguing amalgam of innocence and experience, especially as embodied in Dan Folino's destined-to-be-legendary performance, periodically camps it up like Rocky Horror's Frank N. Furter and proudly flouts sexual ambidextrousness à la David Bowie.

Like those indomitable chanteuses of yore, Hedwig sings and tells his/her tale of woe: He was an aimless German youth who submitted to a gender change in order to marry his soldier boyfriend and come to America. Ultimately left seduced and abandoned in a trailer park, he reinvents himself as a mentor and turns a young teenager into a rock star.

In a transformation as astounding as any Rockette maneuver, Hedwig merges into his own creation. This is a work that thrives on all forms of ambiguity, yet manages to be arresting and unforgettable. Hello, Dolly! it's not. Folino gives a multifaceted performance, singing with the raucousness of a rock star and conveying, with utter honesty, the martyr, the drag queen, and the innocent boy who lies beneath it all. As Hedwig's sexual slave (it's that kind of show), Alison Hernan crosses gender boundaries, exuding fire and passion. Lester Thomas Shane directs with the artistry of a Renaissance master, employing a palette of emotions and shadows.

Part rock concert, part drag show, and part metaphysical passion play, this is a work for those who seek their thrills in the soul's nether regions.

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More by Keith A. Joseph


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