You'd Better Not Pout

Pick your Christmas present: High-kicking revue or wickedly funny memoir

Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Radio City Christmas Spectacular-Performed through December 31 at the Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard. Call 314-534-1111.

The Santaland Diaries-By David Sedaris. Performed by ECHO Theatre Company through December 19 at the Soulard Theatre, 1921 North Ninth Street. Call 314-995-2123.

From Vincent Price and Betty Grable to John Goodman and Kevin Kline, St. Louis has made extensive contributions to show business. But all those individuals combined have not had the impact of the Missouri Rockets. In November 1925, when this "military dancing chorus" made its debut on the stage of the Missouri Theater (one block north of the still-to-be-built Fox), "Sixteen Missouri Rockets" was listed last on a stage bill that featured seven acts. St. Louisans instantly went ballistic for the Rockets, whose name soon was simplified to "16 Missouri Rockets" and then the even shorter "Missouri Rockets." By Christmas they were the Missouri Theater's star attraction, sharing the stage with a circus that featured camels and elephants.

By 1932 the Rockets had rocketed to New York City, where -- under their new name, Rockettes -- they opened the new Radio City Music Hall. And would you believe? Those sophisticated New Yorkers were just as wowed by military (now renamed "precision") dancing as had been the rubes out in the Midwest. Lo, these many decades later, the Rockettes are as closely identified with New York as the Empire State Building (which made its debut a mere eighteen months before they did).

Now that touring editions of the annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular are being farmed out across the nation, it's only fitting that the Rockettes return to the town -- even the boulevard -- of their origin. (Coincidentally, they make their entrance as reindeer prancing to "Kay Thompson's Jingle Bells"; Thompson also was born and raised in St. Louis.) When the Rockettes are onstage, this show lives up to its name, for they are, in their crisp, unique way, spectacular. If you like high-kicking, toe-tapping, robotic precision routines -- and who doesn't? (you might as well not like Girl Scout cookies) -- the Rockettes do not disappoint. They can even transform that dreariest of all holiday songs, the interminable "Twelve Days of Christmas," into an ingenious entertainment. And their "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" continues to amuse.

But much of the rest of the show, when the Rockettes are offstage, is problematic. There is one lovely scene in Act One when a local child participates in an excerpt from the Nutcracker ballet. At the opening-night performance Makensie Howe, a fifth grader from Arnold, danced the role of Clara with radiant poise. (Howe alternates with Kylie O'Brien, an eighth grader from Florissant.) But apart from the Nutcracker, most of the other non-Rockettes sequences are more old-fashioned than bourbon and bitters. Christmas is the season for nostalgia. But this revue isn't nostalgic; it's downright anachronistic. The sets, costumes and non-Rockettes choreography reek of 1950s TV variety shows. At the end of each number, you almost expect Perry Como or Dinah Shore to saunter out onstage. The scenes featuring Santa and his Mrs. are opportunities missed, for there's nary a good joke in the entire script. And as for the new songs, with bland lyrics like "If it weren't for our reindeer, we'd all be insane, dear," Irving Berlin doesn't have to worry about being displaced as America's favorite holiday composer.

The evening concludes -- but hardly climaxes -- with "The Living Nativity." (Here it is nearly 80 years later, and our beloved high kickers are still sharing the bill with camels.) At the termination of that dumb-show, the evening summarily ends without a curtain call; presumably we're all expected to be so moved at having seen camels and sheep walk across a stage that applause would be sacrilege. That's a dubious expectation. But hey, the Radio City executives are smart people. They know exactly what they are doing, all the way to the bank, which by now they probably own. They've heard all these criticisms before, and they don't care.

If you don't care either, you're likely to have a fine time. And by the way, for once no one can complain that the Fox Theatre is too large a venue. This show comfortably fills that vast space and plays even better from upstairs than down. So don't feel that you have to buy the most expensive seats. If you've been waiting all your life to see the Rockettes in person, this is your golden opportunity. But applaud them early, for -- kinda like with Elvis -- by evening's end they will have left the auditorium, and you might be left feeling slightly empty.

For those who prefer a little more spice in their eggnog, it doesn't get much tarter than The Santaland Diaries, the hilariously irreverent account about the perils of elfdom at Macy's. The 65-minute script was adapted from David Sedaris' 1992 essay for National Public Radio, which initiated his ascent into celebrity.

"The play is not appropriate for children," the press release for this ECHO Theatre Company production tersely -- and accurately -- states. Not because it's foul or off-color (or if it was, the profanity didn't offend). It's just that children (one hopes) haven't yet turned into mean-spirited, Scrooge-like grinches. Children still believe in Christmas. But in Sedaris' wicked world, the Macy's that was so gently parodied in Miracle on 34th Street is no more. Today's Macy's is a no-man's-land of "us against them." It's the temps who have been hired as Santa's helpers versus everyone else (the hardened store staff, the crying children, their ghoulish parents, even some of the more self-important Santas).

The delicious set for this simple yet effective production might have been inspired by the department store Santaland in the now-beloved and equally iconoclastic movie A Christmas Story. The stage is covered with artificial snow and framed by two white Christmas trees adorned with red lights. The centerpiece is a marvelous rendition of a maniacal Santa; Big Brother himself never looked more menacing. Into this mad, mad world arrives our unemployed-but-not-so-innocent hero, who in time morphs into Crumpet, the most hapless of Santa's many helpers. As Crumpet works his way up the candy-cane ladder, he applies the most troll-like interpretations to his scathing chronicles.

Originally Terry Meddows was set to appear in this one-person production. That ideal merger of material and manner promised to be one of the joys of the season. When Meddows had to withdraw, primarily owing to vocal problems that arose during the recent revival of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change (a show whose performance schedule conflicted with Santaland anyway), ECHO made the mistake of announcing that Meddows had withdrawn "for personal reasons," a nebulous phrase that -- in true Sedaris style -- allows one to imagine the worst. But all is well, or soon should be, and Meddows will even be running the box office for the final weekend.

So now Crumpet is enacted with plaintive charm by ECHO artistic director Eric Little, who acquits himself well. He lacks the knowing twinkle in the eye that allows Meddows to combine warmth with cynicism; instead we get a beleaguered weariness that turns Little into a kind of Littlechap. But the show is still all kinds of funny, thanks in no small measure to the fact that in his essay Sedaris was incapable of writing a dull sentence.

Curiously, the adaptation by Joe Mantello, currently one of Broadway's busiest directors (Wicked, Assassins), falls into the same trap as the original narrative. After having spent a full hour establishing himself as an incorrigible skeptic, Crumpet tries to make amends with some from-left-field material that is suspiciously sentimental. Then he tries to sip from both sides of the spoon by serving up a final dose of arsenic that doesn't pay off. Which is disappointing, because up until the bitter end, everything else does.

Your best bet is to overlook the final minutes and instead revel in all that goes before. If you're allergic to shopping malls, excessive commercialism or even camels, The Santaland Diaries is just the antidote to restore a smile to your overburdened holidays.

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