Bottle Rockettes

The Rockettes kick it to thunderous applause.
Madison Square Garden Entertainment

O, sweet living nativity scene, it has arrived -- all 36 shapely gams, two sheep, one very bored camel, three wise men, 32,765 spangles, a phalanx of dancing Santas, 27 pounds of dry ice, one lone klieg light stationed outside on Bagby, bolts of red carpet, three dancing midgets -- oh, and Jesus in the manger. It is, of course, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular starring the Rockettes, which has set up camp at the Hobby Center and tied up traffic all the way to The Woodlands.

This family show is the bastard cousin, once removed, of the true "spectacular" that plays in NYC this time of year in its Art Deco palace, the magnificent Radio City Music Hall. I remind you that the NY show has 36 Rockettes, not 18; in fact, most all the numbers listed above are at least doubled, although I can't vouch for the midgets. And it has a live (LIVE!) orchestra, instead of a cheap, prerecorded sound track.

This family show in 12 scenes has been abraded, bleached, Botoxed and nipped/ tucked to be as flawlessly unthinking as possible. That it can't really smile without cracking from head to tapping toe is not the presenter's concern. Just as long as it looks like it's smiling, so be it. If that means putting on a show four times a day that smells like 50 pounds of week-old Gruyre, so be it, too.


Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-315-2525.

Through December 31. $25-$65.

Are we so starved for live entertainment that the sight of the Rockettes wearing reindeer antlers that light up on cue deserves a round of hearty applause? How about when the Rockettes are dressed as Raggedy Ann dolls, and they tip up the alphabet blocks that they've been sitting on and turn them around on their corners? More applause. Yes, synchronized high kicks deserve something, but must every routine end this way? Apparently so, and to thunderous applause.

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And what of the routines? Have you ever seen Jackie Gleason, Perry Como or Carol Burnett reruns, with their mix of comedy sketches and flashy dance numbers by June Taylor and Ernest Flatt? That's what this is, an old-time TV Christmas special, except the sketches between dance numbers aren't funny, and the choreography's routine, to say the least. Whether the leggy showgirls impersonate prancing reindeer, limp dolls or the 12 Days of Christmas, the precision dancing has a numbing sameness, like River Dance or synchronized swimming seen in a prism. The numbers don't build, like fine choreography; they just get louder.

The best segment happens to be the oldest, Russell Markert's 1933 "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers." Markert invented the Rockettes, first as the Missouri Rockets, a precision dance troupe in St. Louis in 1925, then rechristened as the Roxyettes when they moved to NYC and performed at the Roxy Theater, then re-rechristened as the Rockettes when they opened Radio City Music Hall in 1932. "Parade," with its costumes originally designed by Vincente Minnelli -- years before he became the famous Hollywood director and husband of Judy Garland and father of Liza -- is a stylized, comic tour de force as the gals, living Nutcracker soldiers in starched white pants, red military jackets and jaunty black hats, march in unison, break apart and re-form in various patterns, all while taking the tiniest steps possible. They spin around in twos or threes, connecting like a kaleidoscope with other duos or trios down the line, until they form a solid, impenetrable wall of white, red and black. It is amazing, and deserves the sustained applause, even before they fall backward in slow motion -- another feat. Refreshingly, there's not a high kick in sight.

After an hour and a half of the most secular, nondenominational numbers, set to both beloved Christmas songs and slumber-inducing new ones, comes the famous "Living Nativity," a tableau vivant which is the most lifeless thing imaginable. This is the part where the sheep and the bored camel parade across the stage apron, while the wise men with their color-coordinated retinues march up the aisles and stand transfixed in front of the manger as Mary and Joseph dramatically raise their arms heavenward to the electronic strains of "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing." This live-action Hallmark card possesses a static pseudo-religiosity that is monumentally dull and spectacularly unimaginative.

Judging by the rapturous response from the audience, the Rockettes and their Christmas pageant are the greatest show on earth. It just may be, if you've never been to the theater in your life or turned on TV in the last 50 years.

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