18 Chicks a-Dancin'

Once again, the Rockettes kick Christmas up a notch.

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular
The Rockettes flaunt their lithe legwork and luminous racks.
The Rockettes flaunt their lithe legwork and luminous racks.

Cleveland is a magical place at Christmas!" asserts the emcee of The Radio City Christmas Spectacular, some bearded joker in a red suit. He's a likable enough fellow with a winsome -- one might even say jolly -- demeanor. He's taken time out of a busy career in holiday mail-order to deliver some wondrous seasonal entertainment to Xmas-loving Clevelanders of all ages, but especially the young and, yes, Virginia, the young at heart.

And deliver he does. Within his bag of merry tricks can be found the mighty Rockettes (18 chicks a-dancin'), big-city light and sound effects (countless projected snowflakes a-twinklin'), and actual living animals (two camels a-grazin') -- something you don't see on Cleveland stages every day.

The show begins promisingly with "Sleighride," a routine featuring the Rockettes dressed as reindeer -- sparkly antlers, velveteen unitards, and all. It's a wonderful introduction to all the pageantry and precision to follow, and it succeeds on its own merits, as do most of the numbers. Hey, only a dance troupe as impressive as the Rockettes could get away with grooving to the Nutcracker while dressed like bears in tutus.

Equally well executed is the classic evergreen favorite "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," in which the exuberant Rockettes become utterly stilted and expressionless -- in the best possible way. Featuring a razor-sharp pinwheel and the world's gentlest domino fall, this understated display is easily one of the show's highlights.

In fact, the Rockettes let down the audience only with "The Twelve Days of Christmas," a ponderous and generally less dazzling number featuring the dancers in headpieces that look like aluminum foil New Year's tiaras from the seasonal items aisle at CVS. Lacking the charm of the classic precision routines and the flash of some of the more gimmicky production numbers, this part of the show probably even has the five-year-olds in the audience thinking, "Well, that's 11 minutes of my life I'll never get back."

Interspersed with the Rockettes is cutie-pie commentary by the Man in Red, played by a well-miked Edward Staudenmayer. Santa, apparently, is everyone's buddy this time of year, judging by the big laughs he gets with knee-slappers like "How about those Browns?" Keeping this holiday hambone on track is an equally jolly Mrs. Claus (Kate Coffman-Lloyd), who's as vivid and folksy as a Mary Englebreit greeting card. Pater and Mater Christmas make a charming pair, providing festive filler that moves the evening along and supplies the one or two lines of narrative.

Act two steps lively with "Santa's Workshop," during which the Rockettes flank the aisles of the State Theatre, dressed as floppy rag dolls with modish Harry Potter eyeglasses. It's followed by "Christmas Dreams," a pretty MGM-style production number that gets at what "Twelve Days of Christmas" may have been aiming for; it's presented at the right time in the production, saving audiences from complete sugar shock. Like an Esther Williams number, only with tapping instead of splashing, it would have been a gilded guilty pleasure, except for the artful stage pictures and inspired orchestration.

This brings us to the "The Living Nativity," which features the virgin, baby, and manger -- and, most interestingly, two live camels and numerous sheep -- reminding us what Christmas is really about.

The finale, "A Solitary Life," provides a brief retelling of the life of Christ. Capping an evening of dancing girls and Santa banter with an encapsulation of the origins of Christianity is a difficult feat. But it's necessary, and probably good for everyone, to close with something serious, sort of like leaving Santa some calcium-enriched Lactaid to wash down the lemon bars and snickerdoodles. We don't go to "spectaculars" to meditate on deeper issues, after all, but merely to drown our jaded and dulled senses in amped-up holiday cheer. Christmas is for the kiddies; but The Radio City Christmas Spectacular manages to create a number of joyous moments with universal appeal.

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