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Notes From an Americana Buff: In Praise of Tacky Excess

Let's face it, in the year 2000 (the dawn of 2001, to be precise) you need a sensibility devoid of irony to do the following: use dwarves as diminutive snowmen, or present 31 actors in bear costumes dancing on point to Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite."

But then, this is Radio City's "Christmas Spectacular," and within the show's larger-than-life parameters—and that includes its extraordinary theatre that seats 6,000 and boasts a full orchestra that rises out of and lowers into a pit like a flying saucer—irony just wouldn't work.

The "Christmas Spectacular" reflects a genre that takes kitsch to the level of high art, not unlike the half-time show at the Super Bowl, televised wrestling matches, and theme parks. All of these events are pure in their unapologetic celebration of tacky excess.

No elbow nudging, parody, or camp, although the latter point is perhaps debatable. Still, it seems—at least to this viewer—that for the most part, the camp lies more in the eyes of the beholder than in the work itself.

Admittedly, there's a tradition of exaggerated display at Christmas. Check out the towering Rockefeller Center Christmas tree blanketed in lights, or some of the restaurants around town whose holiday esthetic can only be defined as, well, jolly overkill. And then there are the multi-colored-bulb-framed department store windows awash in Santa dolls and stuffed animals moving about: heads rotating from side to side, mouths opening and closing, legs and arms jutting backwards and forwards—surely a kind of theatre if ever there was one.

No doubt, Radio City's "Christmas Spectacular," now in its 67th year, emerges from that convention. And so, too, does Madison Square Garden's seven-year-old "A Christmas Carol," a seasonal favorite. But at Madison Square Garden (MSG)—and the setting is profoundly relevant—the Dickens classic, transported through time and space, has become a stunning example of Americana festivity, wonderfully relentless in its refusal to deny its own populist mercantile identity.

The tone is set at the thronged and noisy ticket booths, more than a dozen, similar to those found at a sports arena. Not coincidentally, MSG is a sports arena, and the theatre booths are set alongside those selling tickets for the ice hockey games. Several large monitors in the hall feature highlights of the ongoing game: the embattled Rangers vs. Anaheim. (The Rangers lost four to six!)

Once theatregoers enter "A Christmas Carol" 's lobby, they are transported to an ersatz Victorian marketplace, featuring actors in 19th-century garb caroling or offering to take souvenir photos with audience members—for a price, of course. On hand are the more obvious hawkers as well. Short of their Dickensian costumes and those who attempt to speak with a British accent, they are millennium Americans selling popcorn, cotton candy, and tall hats. They are also merchandizing away (loudly so) in the house before the curtain goes up.

The theatre itself is a trip with its eye-popping Tony Walton set of Victorian shop façades extending all the way up the sides of the auditorium. According to the program notes, it is the largest theatrical set ever used in New York City.

So who comes to these shows? Probably tourists and the bridge-and-tunnel crowd—for whom (to judge by the shows' esthetic) sardonic smirking is mercifully absent from their emotional vocabulary. And, more important, these theatregoers have never been told that less is more. For them more is more and always has been.

"Christmas Spectacular"

Indeed, there is nothing to compete with the mega-production values of director Robert Longbottom's "Christmas Spectacular" that merge the last word in state-of-the-art special effects with the most refreshingly hokey material. To wit: a series of largely unconnected scenes—each serving as a vehicle for visual and dancing extravaganzas—tied together (tangentially at best) by Santa's journey.

Presenting a cast of 140 and two organists on either side of the stage, who pound away and then vanish as meteorically as they appear (to unaccountably resurface later), the show opens with a short animated film projected onto a giant 70-by-35 foot screen. In the number "White Christmas in New York," a skating rink rises from below the stage as skaters perform extraordinary acrobatic feats on ice. During the happy-go-lucky musical ditty, "Santa's Going to Rock and Roll," a Christmas tree that's 35 feet tall and 25 feet wide tears through the stage floor. And in our favorite—admittedly, this one is a bit campy—the Rockettes, who are now playing reindeer, sport antlers that light up.

The Rockettes are, of course, the show's staple. Their precision, in both their high kicks and, most impressively, in "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," is, well, damned impressive.

But scale and precision are only part of the equation. More central, it's a vision devoid of anxiety. Consider this: Santa knows he has millions of gifts to deliver and he can't possibly do the job in time. Abruptly, a dozen Santas appear, then another dozen, and then another dozen until the stage is besotted with Santas who look and sound exactly like the original. But strikingly, their collective presence doesn't cause even a ripple of fear or self-doubt in our Santa-in-search-of-helpers. In another universe, the cloned Santas would be the stuff of nightmare. Not so here. This Santa is utterly delighted.

Indeed, in other hands, so much here could be disturbing, from the hectoring Mrs. Santa Claus with her munchkin-like children (played by dwarves)—the imagery raises many troublesome questions—to the projected film montage of New York City's local weathercasters repeating, "No snow for Christmas; no snow for Christmas."

All unpleasantness has been eliminated and replaced with stunning distraction. Take the aforementioned bear number in the "Nutcracker Suite." Anyone who is familiar with the original narrative (written by E. T. A. Hoffmann and entitled "The Nutcracker and The Mouse King") knows that it is in fact a frightening piece full of oversized, ominous mice—a child's demon-filled reverie.

In this version, the original story's intent has no application. That's not to say it's mocked, just irrelevant. The threatening mice have become family-friendly, fun-loving polar, panda, Arabian, and even teddy bears that dance about in rhythm to the music. It's wonderfully meaningless and oddly reassuring.

And let's not overlook the famous "Living Nativity" scene; that is admittedly in a league by itself with its pageantry of wise men, virgins, and real live animals: five sheep, three camels, and two donkeys. The 10-15 minute dramatization of Christ's birth that punctuates the show includes His biography on a scrim. "He was nailed to a cross between two thieves," it reads. "He is the central figure for much of the human race." And on and on it goes.

At the end of the portentous act, culminating in Christ's birth, strobe lights flash, streaking everyone, audience and performers alike (including a stream of a actors in saint costumes posing on tiers that spread upwards deep into the cavernous theatre), in explosions of white light. Boom! Boom!

Even the religious moments, which are, without a doubt, unendurably tacky, take on the character of grand entertainment.

"A Christmas Carol"

"A Christmas Carol" is a tad slyer—more self-conscious—in its sensibility. It is, after all, closer to a Broadway book musical than a Madison Square Garden event. Still, if it were staged anywhere other than MSG, one would have to wonder what the creators (Mike Ockrent, Lynn Ahrens, Alan Menken) were thinking. Indeed, in a Broadway house, the show's excesses would bring to mind the nocturnal ramblings of Mel Brooks on a mood-altering drug.

But within the confines of MSG, the production's stylistic hodgepodge or pastiche (depending on viewpoint) works fabulously well, albeit after the initial shock wears off. And, it should be said, in all fairness, that despite the, uh, eclectic vision here, the story as morality tale remains intact. The miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Frank Langella) learns generosity in time for Christmas thanks to three haunting visitations from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future, respectively. Still, the defining element here is the trappings.

Consider Joseph Marley's spectral presence. Remember, he's the one who comes to warn Ebenezer Scrooge of the ghostly encounters to come. In this production, he arrives sporting balls and chains, tattered clothes, and a hairdo that suggests a witch's fright wig. His face is painted white, his eyes lined in black, and his lips are a sickly purple. From time to time he swings aloft, suspended in air, hovering above a justifiably frightened Scrooge, before launching into a series of mid-air cartwheels. A "Rocky Horror Show" reject has bounded into Victorian England.

It gets wilder. The Ghost of Christmas Past is clad in white top hat and tails, cane in hand, and evokes a pasty Elton John whose sartorial role model is Fred Astaire. He and his pals also engage in some bizarre choreography—somersaulting about Scrooge's bed (with Scrooge on it) while spinning the bed around in circles.

But the kicker is surely a draw between the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Future. The latter is a modern dancer out of a '50s musical, Agnes de Mille style, weaving about Scrooge's tombstone, billowing red sleeves, skirt fluttering in her wake.

Now check out the Ghost of Christmas Present. Imagine a dozen or so giant papier mâché fruits and candies dancing up a storm. Their music: right out of a speakeasy. Busby Berkeley couldn't have topped it. Set against a backdrop of pinpoints of starlight, a dozen or so glitter-girls pour out of an imposing cornucopia, their heads and torsos concealed beneath the aforementioned costumes, their legs kicking this way and that. Behind them, a campy, overweight Santa in green robes, well, camps it up. And by the end of the number, Scrooge, who has joined the festivities, demonstrates that he can stomp away with the best of them.

And just when you think it can't get zanier, the grand finale bursts upon the stage showing how, in the right hands, even political correctness can achieve the level of kitsch.

Picture this: A choir of black adolescent boys in angel wings joins the cast in song. Curiously, the choir is not part of the show and has not appeared before this moment. Three signers for the deaf who have been scattered around the theatre also come up on stage, continuing to sign the song for the deaf who may (or may not be) in the audience.

Finally, there's the personal triumph of Dickens' Tiny Tim, the crippled boy (physically challenged youth?) who blesses everyone. (Remember, he's the wretched child who intones, "God bless, everyone!") To punctuate Tiny's victory, Scrooge (Langella) raises the kid over his head so that everyone in the audience can see the leg braces! The child is held aloft like a trophy as snowflakes are released from the ceiling and float down onto the audience. The audience cheers!

Bad taste? Bah, humbug!


The bottom line: "A Christmas Carol" and the "Christmas Spectacular" are just plain old fun. Perhaps one has to sit through a host of terminally hip works that are simply loud and not especially entertaining in order to fully appreciate the theatrical-cultural validity in the aforementioned extravaganzas, which reflect precisely those values (artistic, social) that many of the more lofty theatre practitioners are busy lambasting.

The Radio City-Madison Square Garden experience is, for this viewer anyway, not unlike that of the city kid who finds exoticism—perhaps even poetry—in the suburban mall.

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