The "living nativity" in the 2017 Christmas Spectacular.
The "living nativity" in the 2017 Christmas Spectacular.
(© MSG Entertainment Holdings, LLC.)

For 84 years, Radio City Music Hall's annual Christmas Spectacular has delighted spectators with its high-kicking Rockettes, an effervescent Santa Claus (Charles Edward Hall), and a living nativity scene featuring a plethora of live animals. Its format of stunning precision dance number after stunning precision dance number is tried, tested, and approved. If it isn't broken, what is there to fix?

But there's a dichotomy in viewership within the cavernous auditorium of Radio City. Audience members visiting New York on their winter holidays will no doubt make the Christmas Spectacular a stop on their vacation, as tourists have since the 1933.

Those observers will be thrilled by this lively, 90-minute conveyor belt of Christmas cheer. Their eyes will pop at the sight of the candy-colored costumes by Frank Krenz and Tony winners Gregg Barnes and Martin Pakledinaz; they'll adore the light story line about a cynical 14-year-old who learns that you're never too old to find Christmas magical. And when the Rockettes perform the "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," which they have for eight decades, the imagery will be seared into the brains of young and old alike.

With the exception of the excellent movement of the Rockettes, annual viewers are more likely to take a slightly cynical view overall, since the production hasn't changed all that much in the past half-decade, when Linda Haberman, the then-artistic director of the Rockettes, was replaced by new director and choreographer Julie Branam.

Santa Claus and his reindeer take the stage at Radio City Music Hall.
Santa Claus and his reindeer take the stage at Radio City Music Hall.
(© MSG Entertainment Holdings, LLC.)

As it stands, the piece is an amalgam of older routines and newer ones ("new" meaning at least five years old), almost all featuring Haberman's original choreography. Venerable segments like "Wooden Soldiers" (by Russell Markert) and "Rag Dolls" (by Scott Salmon) are classics for a reason: It's just simply astounding to watch human bodies move in unison as they do, with such extreme meticulousness.

The rest of the Christmas Spectacular, however, needs a makeover. "New York at Christmas," which finds the Rockettes on a double-decker bus tour of Manhattan, is an anodyne song by Mark Hummel and Mark Waldrop, given a physical setting and context that reflects an antithetical view of the New York City it so happily celebrates, lacking in diversity and realism. Other scenes, like the "Twelve Days of Christmas" dance number and the opening 3-D movie, in which Santa Claus flies to the theater, have begun to feel tedious.

What has changed this year is the look of the show. Radio City has overhauled the technological aspects of the production, installing a brand new 8K LED stage wall as well as a digital projection system that spans the venue's entire ceiling. The content, created by Obscura Digital and returning projection designer Batwin & Robin Productions, is very cool to look at as the city skyline appears on the theater walls and snowstorms overtake proscenium arches. If they can modernize the technical design, hopefully a rethinking of the creative material will soon follow.