by Matt Smith
The world-famous Radio City Rockettes have returned for another round of off-season festivities, and this year’s Spectacular delivers a result that’s exactly that!!
What’s the secret? This production, following last year’s inaugural Spring Spectacular, foregoes all the extraneous technology and celebrity cameos of its predecessor. Not to say last year’s production didn’t fit the bill — with the triple-threat talent of Derek Hough and Laura Benanti, no less — but considering it in retrospect after attending the 2016 show, it did kinda seem like celebrity for celebrities’ sake.
Doing away with that tightens the production in all aspects, allowing for a greater focus on the performers. To that end, both in their billing and physically onstage, the Rockettes become the main attraction — exactly what one might expect from a Radio City experience. Their numbers are treated as numbers in their own right, instead of background to the main plot. The top-notch cast — chock full of Broadway alums, including Danny Gardner, Kacie Sheik, Lilla Crawford and Euan Morton — support the production with a story that entertains, teaches, and tugs at the heartstrings, all in equal parts.
But that’s not to say this incarnation is completely devoid of flash. (I mean, it is Radio City, after all!) The spectacle brilliantly utilizes projection design to visually describe each location on the “New York Spectacular Journey,” which begins at Grand Central Terminal and ends at the Statue of Liberty, with stops at the Met, NY Public Library, Wall Street and Times Square along the way.
The plot itself follows two kids — in from out of town on a New York vacation with their parents — who become separated from Mom and Dad on a subway platform, and must navigate through their aforementioned journey alone in order to find them. The city comes alive through the imagination of the younger boy, Jacob (Vincent Crocilla), who’s insistent on getting his tech-obsessed older sister, Emily (Jenna Ortega, in a role shared with Broadway dynamo Crawford) to regain her own sense of imagination and see the city as he does — with the help and guidance of Mercury (Morton) and a certain inspirational statue.
With 2016’s new story, it was a welcome surprise to find that virtually all of last year’s scenes and sequences, including “Rockin’ the Met,” the dazzling “Vogue” fashion sequence, and the breathtaking opening number, remained intact — albeit with slight tweaks or adjustments under Mia Michaels’ direction.
The choreography was sharp and precise (well, what else would you expect from the Rockettes?) and one could definitely feel Michaels’ influence in each dance — nearly every song was treated to a pop/hip-hop makeover. (An observation, not a gripe — it works very well, and broadens the Rockettes beyond the iconic kickline).
On the subject, one of the standout re-imaginations is “Singin’ in the Rain” which, in lieu of happy tappy Hough, moves from traditional music theatre fare into a kicked-up ballet/hip-hop number. The Rockettes take the form literal raindrops, with their umbrellas acting as flowers that “bloomed”—through intricate, synchronized choreography—by the end of the number, as the rain eventually lets up (at which point, they break out into a musical theatre finale).
Another A+ substitution, replacing Benanti’s 11 o’clock number in the Times Square sequence, was to have the Rockettes tap to “42nd Street”—the perfect number to both showcase the leggy ladies and encapsulate the vibrancy of the location—wearing the LED jackets, to symbolize the bright lights and bustle of Times Square. The icing on the cake is Gardner, who dazzles as anthropomorphic statue George M. Cohan, showing us all what we’ve been missing since Dames at Sea closed last Fall.
With his charming story, bookwriter Douglas Carter Beane captures the essence of the Big Apple, but at the same time, peppers in loving digs and jabs at the city that make all the local New Yorkers giggle. (One particular gem came from Emily, who, when walking through GCT, quips: “Look at all these people! Is Connecticut really that compelling?” LOL!)
But despite the occasional jab, the beauty of the story is that it never loses its heart, ultimately reminding us to never lose our inner child and to always “keep [our] hearts open and let [our] imagination run free.” All that bookended with razzle-dazzle performances by the iconic showgirls?! Living proof (as they exclaim throughout the show) there really is no city in the world like New York… and certainly no other show like the 2016 New York Spectacular.
The New York Spectacular, starring the Radio City Rockettes, is currently playing at Radio City Music Hall (1260 Avenue of the Americas) through August 7th. For tickets, call 212-465-6741 or visit www.rockettes.com/newyork.