Want to know what to see in New York on your next visit. Head to Radio City where the new Spring Spectacular directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, will take you on a virtual tour of the city and its famed sights juiced up with some quite magical and startling special effects. For oversized theater there is nothing that holds a candle to Radio City. The theater and its resident Rockettes are still the last word in blockbuster song and dance reviews. But at 90 minutes and no intermission the show often marginalizes the Rockettes. Hanging on a flimsy book by Joshua Harmon it did as much to wear you down as lift you up.
Here’s the story. Bernie (the grandfatherly Lenny Wolpe), a lifelong New York City guide is about to get the boot, shoved aside by Jenna (Broadway veteran Laura Benanti), a heartless thirty something Silicon Valley mogul determined to replace him with an ipod. God, appearing only as a voiced Whoopi Goldberg, doesn’t like the look of the situation and sends Jack the angel, Dancing With the Stars pretty boy Derek Hough, down to set things right. Call it a spring version of “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Jack needs to convince six-thousand people (coincidentally the seating capacity of Radio City) that Bernie’s getting a raw deal if he is to save him from Jenna the internet queen. Let the high jinx begin.
The show soldiers on after a truly memorable opening number for the Rockettes choreographed by Mia Michaels. Suited up in Zac Posen’s costumes they looked fabulous and delivered in spades on their trademark unison dancing with nervy crisscrossing lines that were always perfect. They are a marvel. Other huge but less effective production numbers included “Singing in the Rain” replete with tapping, umbrellas, yellow slickers, and an actual pounding down shower (engineered by Water Sculptures) that soaked shoes and costumes, and a fashion show number backed by Madonna’s hit Vogue celebrating New York as the runway capitol of the universe. The production piece was filled with additional less memorable musical filler by the show’s numerous contract composers and arrangers. Video appearances by several New York City sports stars marked a nadir that nearly ground the show's theatrical momentum to a halt.
The significant drawback was the “live” music which thundered without intimacy at every turn, even in the solo songs for Bernie, Jenna, and Jack. Always heavy on bass, keyboard and percussion, the sound design overwhelmed the string section and other instrumentalists who were virtually inaudible. The sound seemed to come from everywhere except the singers mouths and the orchestra players themselves. Actual hits such as “New York, New York”, “I Could Have Danced All Night”, and “Singin’ in the Rain” fared better than any of the anodyne newly composed numbers. The best of the production numbers was “Rockin’ the Met” which cleverly cribbed classical music from “Pictures at an Exhibition”, “Symphony from the New World”, and other classical hits. Fantastic projections animated the Met’s classic Degas paintings with filmed clips of dancers vaulting off the canvasses and dashing through doorways. The projection designs were produced by Batwin + Robin Productions. In a show which could have used more thoughtfully integrated doses of scaled down action (such as Bernie’s reprise of “Just the Way You Look Tonight”) the program doubled down on bigger is better in numbers such as “America” which rolls out an animated stage-filling reproduction of The Statue of Liberty.
In the end Jenna mends her evil ways. She never really seemed that much of a villain from the start. Bernie stays on at his beloved job with an adoring public, and Jenna and Jack get to take their turn at romance New York style. The finale? You guessed it, the famous 36 strong kick line with Jenna living her girlhood fantasy of dancing with the Rockettes one day. Some folks have all the luck!
(The reviewed performance took place in previews on March 14th. Family friendly performances continue at Radio City Music Hall through May 3rd)