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High-stepping Into Christmas Spirit

December 21, 1986|KEVIN THOMAS

NEW YORK — Well, I have to admit it: I would never have gone to the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show were it not for a friend. He wanted to see it and nothing on or off Broadway sounded very tempting. So why not? Even if it meant catching an 11 a.m. performance.

This noncommittal attitude, as it turned out, was the perfect frame of mind. I was taken completely by surprise.

My previous exposure to the Radio City extravaganzas was not encouraging. On those outings, only the Rockettes seemed to be in sync. At my first time, at the end of the '60s, the production numbers seemed hopelessly tacky and corny.

At the second time, far more recently, the show, devoted to popular dance, didn't begin to fill the immense stage and, worse yet, was plagued by such severe technical problems as to cause the jettisoning of a major production number.

But the other morning, all went perfectly for "The Magnificent Christmas Spectacular." It had everything, starting, of course, with the Rockettes, in snappy Santa jackets for the traditional high-kicking number and, for another, dressed as toy wooden soldiers and performing a drill exercise with the precision of a marine squadron.

But what was amazing was how producer-director Robert F. Jani and his huge cast and crew were able to embrace so many elements on such a vast scale with such taste and imagination--and a wondrous lack of self-consciousness that was bordering on innocence. The entire production was fresh but not slick, handsome rather than glitzy. It managed to progress with ease from the exuberant to, finally, the reverent.

You came away feeling that Jani et al. had blended show-biz pizazz and DeMillean spectacle with genuine sentiment so successfully that they actually captured the joyous spirit of Christmas and shared it with their sold-out audience.

Once the twin organs on either side of Radio City's vast rainbow arch had given way to the orchestra slowly rising into the pit and after the "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" overture had put us into the holiday spirit, we were treated to 12 scenes that unfolded in 90 briskly paced minutes.

There was a "Nutcracker" ballet featuring a pretty little long-haired blonde's dream of dancing teddy bears that had more real charm than the entirety of the recent feature film of the Tchaikovsky ballet fantasy.

A brief, offstage narration prepared us for the happy ending scene of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," in which a reformed Scrooge astounds Bob Cratchit and his large family with his largess. It was a vignette performed in impeccable period sets and costumes. There was an exhilarating evocation of Christmas in Manhattan featuring ice skating in Central Park, and a visit to Santa's workshop, where Santa, a very pretty Mrs. Claus and a five elves were preparing all their goodies for Christmas eve delivery, culminating in a later sequence with a recitation of "The Night Before Christmas." "The 12 Days of Christmas," illustrated with slides, provided a deft, whimsical bridge between more elaborate sequences.

The program ended with a re-creation of the Nativity that was no less than awesome, summoning images of the great religious paintings of Western culture. It was so beautifully lit, staged and designed that it avoided--or perhaps transcended--greeting card kitschiness and was accompanied by a narration that was admirably ecumenical in spirit.

"The Magnificent Christmas Spectacular" seemed a quintessentially American communal experience, wedding piety and pulchritude with our love of technical wizardry and passion for superlatives.

(Unfortunately, by no means can all the families who would so much enjoy this show afford to see it: Good seats in the orchestra go for $25 apiece. But highlights are currently airing on HBO.)

Restored to its full Art Deco grandeur and meticulously maintained, the Radio City Music Hall is a show in itself, a survivor of the time when you went to the movies--which ironically are no longer a Radio City staple--you knew you were somewhere special. It wasn't just another shopping mall multiplex.

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