Everything but the Crèche: The Rockettes kick it Xmas-style at the Fox — but what's with the biblical grand finale?

Dec 17, 2008 at 4:00 am
Nobody does Christmas like New York City. For a month an otherwise cynical, at-your-throat town turns marshmallow soft, and traditions like the giant snowflake at 57th Street and the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center take center stage. This year Manhattan has come to St. Louis. A touring edition of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular starring the Rockettes, an old-fashioned extravaganza that transforms even the most hard-edged New Yorker into a wide-eyed tourist, is strutting its stuff at the Fox, allowing us a taste of the Big Apple at Christmas without the hassle of having to pack our bags.

A dash of parochial pride here, seeing as how the evening's star attraction, the precision-drilling Rockettes, was hatched in 1925 St. Louis as a "military dancing chorus" known then as the Missouri Rockets. By 1933 the sixteen original Rockets had morphed into the Radio City Rockettes. A huge draw at any time of year, the Rockettes are especially potent in winter. The current elaborate New York City version of the Christmas Spectacular boasts 36 Rockettes; this touring company only has 22. Whereas some Scrooges might carp that we're being shortchanged, I prefer to view it as a net gain of six. (Or twelve, if you count legs.)

The Radio City franchise travels widely. In recent years you might have caught up with the Rockettes in Branson or at the Muny. But there's something especially simpatico about seeing them at the Fox, whose cavernous interior approximates the Radio City experience more closely than any other theater in America. Both of these crusty survivors bespeak an era when entertainment helped America survive hard times. The Fox opened in 1929, just in time to witness the Wall Street crash and ensuing Great Depression; the Music Hall opened four years later when the Depression was at its worst. Now, as America stands at another precipice, the eternally energetic Rockettes are still ready to help us tap our troubles away.

The revue itself is little altered from the version that played the Fox four years ago. The scene-by-scene outline ("Sleighride," "We Need a Little Christmas," "Santa's Gonna Rock and Roll," etc.) is exactly the same, although the dream sequence in Act Two has been revised for the better. But despite a fantasia of singing Christmas trees, runaway rag dolls and lovable bears who dance excerpts from The Nutcracker, the show's highlight remains "The March of the Wooden Soldiers." The sheer cleanliness of this familiar drill continues to beguile.

From the moment the gammy Rockettes first appear as reindeer (all of them ten-point stags), they are the ultimate chorus line. Each dancer sublimates her individual personality to the monomorphic whole. Anonymity is the name of the game; there are not even any bios in the playbill. But go to page 18 and gaze longingly upon the headshots of these 22 dancers, each face emanating beauty and pizzazz. Then imagine the effort that must go into subordinating all that individuality.

Yet in a curious tic of staging, the glorious Rockettes vanish before the audience is able to give them their due. At the end of their final dance sequence, there is no curtain call, at least not one that the audience realizes is a curtain call. Instead, as it did four years ago, the evening abruptly transitions from the gaiety of a high-kicking Christmas celebration to the "Living Nativity," a dumb-show reenactment of the birth of Jesus. The secular is swallowed whole by the faithful. After we hear excerpts from the Gospel according to Luke, there is nothing left to do except perhaps to wander out to the lobby and buy some Rockettes merchandise. (I didn't notice any crèches for sale.) Maybe it works for the Bible Belt. But from the standpoint of good theater, this is such an odd, impersonal and anticlimactic way to end a show, such perverse staging almost begs to be seen.