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Rockettes fever in Chicago
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular is silly and fun
Whenever the Rockettes formed their familiar kick line, the audience responded with loving ovations.
Whenever the Rockettes formed their familiar kick line, the audience responded with loving ovations.
Credit:Radio City Christmas Specatcular

Deep down, I am permanently ten years old.

Maybe. It could explain, anyway, why over the weekend I went with great excitement to an afternoon performance of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. It took place outside Chicago in Rosemont, at the hulking Rosemont Theatre.

The show stars The Rockettes, the troupe of smiling young women who have been high-kicking around the stage of New York's Radio City Music Hall for 75 years. You doubtless already knew that. In fact, it's really all you need to know about the show, which is now performed both in Manhattan and in various regional productions.

Oh, there's more than the Rockettes to the Christmas Spectacular. There is in fact a story -- or, at least, the suggestion of a story. Really, it's more of an outline of a story. Really, it's just this: Santa gets ready to deliver presents on Christmas, and then he delivers presents on Christmas, and then Jesus is born.

Yes, it's that rare Christmas narrative that actually includes both Santa and Jesus Christ. The glory of the infant Savior appears in the finale, "The Living Nativity," which features live animals -- camel, mule, sheep -- and Rockettes dressed as robed courtiers to the Three Kings. "The Living Nativity" has been performed in every Christmas Spectacular since 1933, and its somberness is a little jarring after the eleven splashy numbers that precede it. The sheep looked alarmed.

But oh, those splashy numbers. Most of them featured the Rockettes, who were dressed variously as snow fairies, reindeer and rag dolls. The program describes their signature dance style as precision dancing, which is apt. True, the show has strong tap elements, and there even is a balletic interlude in an arch take on The Nutcracker, danced by people in bear costumes. But there mostly is the glorious sight of the Rockettes doing their trademark kicking, with discipline and, yes, precision. Whenever they formed their familiar kick line, the audience responded with loving ovations.

The best Rockettes number was "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," which is, like "The Living Nativity," a staple of the revue. The dancers were dressed in crisp military whites, and they frowned under plumed hats as they performed drills, then slowly collapsed, seemingly shot down by a toy cannon. "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" was solemn, almost eerie, and lovely.

All of the Rockettes' numbers were lovely, in fact. They also were a charming throwback. The Rockettes practice a brand of entertainment, too little seen these days, that incorporates tap dancing just for the sake of tap dancing.

As for the show's other numbers, they were performed by Scott Willis as a mugging Santa -- who hit all the notes you'd expect a mugging Santa to hit -- and by an ensemble of young men and women. The best of these was "I'm There," which saw the stage slowly fill with a mob of dancing Santas. But other ensemble numbers, like "Santa's Going to Rock and Roll," seemed perfunctory. Watching them, I longed to see the Rockettes, who presumably were changing.

Special mention, though, is due to Bethe B. Austin, who turned in a sly, witty performance as Mrs. Claus, in this telling an addled, Betty Boop-ish figure. Her big song, "Everybody's Waitin' for the Man With the Bag," was a funny highlight.

But mostly there were those wondrous Rockettes, who hoofed with such gusto that I was not the least bit surprised to read, in the program, the best theatrical credit ever credited: "Rockette Podiatrist."

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular runs through Sunday at the Rosemont Theatre in Rosemont, Ill.

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