Dwelling across the religious divide, I've always been addicted to the secular Hollywood yuletide glories that lie on that side of the fence. I grin every time Bing taps that Holiday Inn Christmas ornament with his pipe. I tear up every time Clarence gets his wings and hyperventilate every time Rudolph "with his nose so bright" leads the way. This year, I even plan to beat my previous record by listening to "White Christmas" at least a thousand times.
So, it is indeed a puzzlement that such a legendary institution as The Radio City Christmas Spectacular leaves this holly-jolly elf lover as queasy and dispirited as if he'd quaffed a flagon of rancid egg nog. In its defense, except for the economic necessity of recorded Ice Capades-like music, the endeavor tries very hard to live up to the spectacular side of the bargain. Backstage is a crew of 100, while cavorting onstage, along with live camels, goats and sheep, are 42 well-scrubbed cast members. The latter prominently include 22 Rockettes cheerfully dispensing 300 kicks apiece per performance in unified-line precision whose each repetition is guaranteed to evoke a Pavlovian standing ovation from the audience. Also in attendance are 14 singing dancers imbued with such relentless wholesomeness that they make the Von Trapp family seem like Hell's Angels. One of the frighteningly blond chorus boys is the possessor of such a blinding smile that we suspect him of being the love child of Tab Hunter and Liberace.
When concentrating on the old standbys, like the always enchanting "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and a teddy-bear rendition of The Nutcracker, the evening exudes a plangent vein of Christmas past, dating all the way back to the Depression years. But the proceedings go astray and lose focus when they eschew the evocation of Norman Rockwell holiday nostalgia for unfortunate attempts at being trendy and up-to-date. All successful yuletide shows (e.g., Karamu's Black Nativity, Great Lakes' A Christmas Carol) embody a certain cultural slant on the meaning of Christmas. In contrast, so-called modernizations reflect a Madison Avenue vision of the occasion based on greed and condescension. A terpsichorean ode to the ecstasies of shopping in the midst of a serious recession makes us long for the intrusion of tap-dancing muggers to put an end to the excess. Added to this are some painful attempts to be funky and a Santa figure with a mania for repeated pandering about how much he adores "the joys of Cleveland." The Rockettes remain nonetheless an undiminished delight. Still, we'd love to see them broaden their appeal even further by including a high-stepping incarnation of a dancing menorah.
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular Through December 28 State Theatre, PlayhouseSquare 216.241.6000