See two updates on the stagehands' strike at the end of this entry.
Most kids probably get their first exposure to the theater during the holiday season that runs from the week before Thanksgiving to the week after New Year's. Lots of parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts buy tickets for their little ones to see big Broadway shows like Wicked and The Lion King. But a large part of the seasonal merriment comes from the special limited-run shows that play multiple times a day, offer at least some tickets at family-friendly prices and disappear before all the Christmas tinsel is packed away.
Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, with ticket prices running $25 to $99, was scheduled to do up to seven performances a weekend at the St. James Theatre before the stagehand’s strike shut it down (although settlement talks are underway even as I type this*). A few blocks uptown in a big tent in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center, the Big Apple Circus is celebrating its 30th season with a new show called Celebrate! that, according to its press handout, features "a live, original musical score, a chic British ringmistress, and of course our own lovable Grandma the Clown" and seats starting at $28. This year the Cirque du Soleil folks got into the holiday spirit with Wintuk, a holiday-centered extravaganza at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden with ticket prices of $30 to $110. And then, of course, there's the granddaddy of holiday family shows, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, where tickets cost $40 to $100 until the end of its run on Dec. 30. Road companies of the Christmas Spectacular are playing across the country this season in places like Fort Lauderdale and Phoenix but, call me provincial if you like, there’s nothing like seeing it in the glorious performance cathedral that Radio City Music Hall is.
I first saw the Christmas Spectacular there when I was about seven and I thought it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen. I loved the precision-dancing Rockettes and the pageantry of the show's version of the Nativity story with its parade of live animals, including camels and an elephant. I took my niece Jennifer when she was around the same age back in the mid '80s. But by then the show seemed a little run down and tacky. Jennifer, a veteran theatergoer by the time she was four, wasn't much impressed. And so it's been about 20 years since I've been back to see a Christmas Spectacular but my family is big on traditions and this year Jennifer and I took her four-year old god-brother Max to see it.
The show is celebrating its 75th anniversary and it's undergone a makeover to make it more attractive to kids who even at the earliest ages are more used to being entertained by Jay-Z music videos and CGI-animated cartoons (click here to see a behind-the scenes NYTimes video on the making of the new Spectacular). The result is a mix of the old and the new. The Rockettes, looking great, perform their traditional, and still amazing, "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" routine, which debuted in 1933, but they also do a few numbers that include some hip-hop moves. "The Living Nativity" is still there (albeit with fewer animals than I remember from the old days) but there's also a high-tech, 3-D animated tour of New York (3-D glasses are pasted in the program). They still do an excerpt from "The Nutcracker" with a lovely little girl ballerina but there's also a jazzy number with dancing Santa Clauses. And there's plenty of opportunity for audience participation (or interactive involvement, as we now call it) from carol sing-alongs to, at the finale, the spinning of small pen lights (they came with the programs too at the opening-night performance we attended).
The 90-minute show didn't live up to the memories of the ones I'd seen in my childhood. But I'm going to let four-year Max have the final the word here. "It was," he told his mother when he got home, "a great Christmas show."
[*An update on Nov 19: According to NY1, the local 24-hour news station with good sources in the Broadway community, How the Grinch Stole Christmas has a separate contract with the stagehands' union Local One and its producers, clearly unhappy to see the other kiddie shows thriving while theirs remained dark, made a separate arrangement with the strikers over the weekend so that its shows can go on starting Nov. 20.]
[A later update on Nov 19: the powers that be at the Jujamcyn Theaters are now threatening to lockout the Grinch producers, who, in turn, say they are going to court to fight for the right to put on their show. I got this info from by buddy Steve at Steve on Broadway.com, which has provided the most comprehensive and update coverage of the strike of any media outlet. So, click on to his blog if you want to know the latest on what has become Broadway's most riveting drama.]
With the ongoing strike leaving me absolutely blue, I'm looking forward to reveling once again in the splendor of the Christmas Spectacular.
It's been at least 15 years since I last saw it, so your review has helped me to start dusting off those blues as I prepare to go back to Radio City once more. Thanks for that!
And I completely agree that you can't see the Rockettes without being at the Radio City Music Hall.
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