Pageantry. What ever happened to it? Humans crave it, that thrill of being a part of something grand and grandly presented.
I myself, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, didn’t realize how dishwater dull my life had become until I walked into the lobby of Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center and was confronted by the enormous Christmas tree crystal chandelier surely at least 60 feet high. Made up entirely of sparkling white lights and looking just like the Death Star exploding in a shimmering blaze of holiday repentance. And once inside the gi-normous theatre, when Santa’s sleigh zoomed onto stage pulled by three dozen rhinestoned, bejeweled and bedizened lady reindeer, well, a pageant-sized hole in my heart was filled.
Forgive the purple prose, but the Radio City Christmas Spectacular starring that vast excellent army of precision good cheer, The Rockettes, demands more than a little pip-squeaked “God bless us everyone.” This 90-minute, intermission-less extravaganza, welcoming, oh, just 5933 close personal friends for each of four or often a crazy five performances a day through December 31st lives up to its hyperbolic name.
From the “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ, the largest ever built for a movie palace, with its two consoles on each side of the Great Stage, to the laser lights, the hunky carolers, an ice skating pas de deux, and a Greyline doubledecker tour bus rolling by on stage, packed with Rockettes in terrific little sparkling dresses in green or red — it all makes the proverbial clown car look like a five-year old tin of dusty sardines in the back of the cupboard.
I could go on, so chock full of Busby Berkeley dreams is this Manhattan tourist perennial. There’s also the fat man in the red suit, a jovial Charles Edward Hall, who has played Santa Claus in the Christmas Spectacular for the past 28 years. I wonder what he does the rest of the year? Santa emceed and handled the only bit of narrative in the show, a little sacchrine tale about two brothers searching high and low for a Christmas present for their sister (cute little BJ Covington and a terrific Brett Gray in the performance I saw). Surprises that won’t be spoiled here are in store in the last third of the show, a moving, memorable and big-budget recreation of the nativity. (This is not a show that tries to give all religions’ holiday traditions equal time.)
But it’s The Rockettes’ world at Radio City; Melchior just lives in it. There are 36 Rockettes in each performance and more than 1,300 costumes flashing by. I guess I thought, having not seen them since I came to New York on a holiday trip when I was seven, that The Rockettes had descended into pure kitsch, had perhaps become threadbare, a gimmick for children and grandpas and were nothing more. But there is something almost physically thrilling in watching them at the outset of “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” stiffly walking out of the giant toy sentry box with the big wind-up key turning in its side.
The dress slacks of the Wooden Soldiers’ uniforms are blindingly white and match the tall plumes standing at attention on top of their hats. The red, blue and white of the line of them all across the stage is like some primary-color construction paper assemblage come to life and when they start their looooong, slow collapse into one another’s arms, it’s more satisfying than any Walking Dead massacre.
They are sharp, smiling, shining reflections of each other, those Rockettes, but somehow they don’t feel like automatons at all, each seems fully alive and individual even as a crack member of a well-disciplined team. They’re just terrific.
So, if you’re feeling a little bah humbuggish, you could tromp over to Madison Square Garden to commiserate with the Grinch, but for sheer, overwhelming oomph, I recommend The Rockettes, who still manage, after 82 years, to take your breathe away.
You think I’m laying it on a bit thick about the wonder that is pageantry? Go see for yourself, and take a kid or two with you as cover.