Review: A Radio City Christmas at PPAC

High-kicking holiday spirit
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  November 16, 2010

REINDEARS The Rockettes perform "Sleigh Ride."

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular, at the Providence Performing Arts Center through November 28, should be called Santa Claus and the 18 Leggy Showgirls. They could have packed the place with hubbies.

In scene after scene in a dozen seasonal sketches, Santa (John Paul Almon) carries the show with his North Pole pep and enthusiasm. But, sigh, the leggy Rockettes ain't too shabby, either.

It's those rafters-reaching, precision kick lines which the Rockettes are known for that make this show such a pleasure to behold, whether you are a tourist holiday shopping in New York City or are catching the touring company on the road. Considering that there were relatively few children in the audience, the conventional and thinly imagined scenes — starting with a sleigh ride from the North Pole, concluding with a straightforward though opulently designed living nativity — wouldn't be much to sell tickets for without those showgirls.

Their history is interesting. That distinctive kick line originated in 1885 when English impresario John Tiller discovered that a string of dancers could coordinate their moves much more precisely if they linked arms around their neighbors' waists. The Paris Folies Bergère took that up and began impressing audiences with their still-familiar "pony kick." The Tiller Girls came to America in 1900 and became part of the Ziegfeld Follies, which inspired the formation of the 16-member Missouri Rockets in St. Louis in 1925. They soon became the Roxyettes when showman S.L. "Roxy" Rothafel installed them at his theater in New York.

By 1933 they were calling themselves the Rockettes and performed their first Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, where they remain installed today. Their first show included the two segments that still remain: "The Living Nativity" and "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers." The Rockettes have been a part of American popular culture ever since, through their USO tours during World War II to their appearances at Super Ball halftimes and, less exhaustingly, at annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parades.

That wooden soldiers number is certainly worth seeing. Here the Rockettes' precision is on display in a less spectacular but impressive manner, not with kicks but with maintaining a razor-straight line. Shuffling ahead a few inches a beat, they turn and slide in lockstep, eventually breaking into complex groupings of six and three that pattern the stage. Even though it couldn't be called dancing, it was one of the crowd-pleasing high points of the show I attended.

Some of the other routines were also fun to watch. "A Teddy Bear's Dream," done to an adaptation of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker," is a cavalcade of set pieces, from leaping Russian soldiers to costumed ursine cavorting. "The 12 Days of Christmas" offers a dozen tapping and strutting variations on the holiday theme. The animated number titled "Santa's Gonna Rock and Roll" has him surrounded by dancers in colorful '50s-inspired costumes.

Not every moment is finger-snapping fun. After intermission, things start slowly with a lame multiple Santa scene that purports to explain how the old man can be in so many places on his big night. Similarly starting slowly until the dancing begins, "Santa's Workshop" finally has toys come to life and the Rockettes doing that Parisian can-can kick line for the first time as, in droll irony, rag dolls.

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