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The Radio City Christmas Spectacular had me less than a minute into the overture, when the show's 36-piece orchestra -- having rolled to the very lip of the gargantuan stage on an enormous platform -- went into the magical "Welcome Christmas" song from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Just about every favorite Christmas tune you can name is heard at some point during the show but, for me, this number epitomizes the spirit of the season. As soon as I heard it, I correctly guessed that I was in for a great show.

I hadn't been to the Christmas Spectacular for a long time. My understanding is that it changes gradually from year to year, with some numbers added and others retired. If memory serves, the present edition contains only two sequences that I saw previously: the Radio City Rockettes' deservedly famous "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" routine (including that amazing, slow-motion-domino-effect fall of the soldiers) and, of course, the "Living Nativity" scene. One of the most significant of the recent additions is "Santa's Magical Journey in 3-D," a brief but thrilling computer animated film that's shown immediately after the overture. This is the most effective 3-D movie I've ever seen, so much so that it alone would almost be worth the price of admission to the Christmas Spectacular.

The present edition of the RCCS is directed and choreographed by John Dietrich, with Broadway's own Todd Ellison serving as musical director; production design is by Michael Hotopp and Charles Lisanby, costumes by Gregg Barnes and Frank Spencer, and lighting by Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz. (Yes, this Spectacular is huge enough to require two designers in each of these areas.) One of show's special pleasures is a capsule version of Tchaikowsky's "Nutcracker" ballet suite performed by dancers costumed as all sorts of plush toy bears, from koala to panda to polar. (A few rabbits also turn up.) Among the many other highlights are the "Ice Skating in the Plaza" scene, which showcases skaters Jennifer Bayer-Rand and Jeb Rand; the "Here Comes Santa Claus" number, featuring scores of Kris Kringles; and every appearance of the Rockettes, who are kept busy playing everything from reindeer to rag dolls to the aforementioned toy soldiers.

There is a certain amount of silliness in the show. For example, the depiction of Santa Claus (played by Charles Edward Hall) is weirdly post-modern; this jolly old fellow makes use of e-mail, a cell phone, and a fax machine, and he makes his first appearance in a number titled "Santa's Gonna Rock and Roll." (It's amusing that, in their attempt to bring this legendary figure "up to date," the creators of the show have Santa sing and dance to a style of music that was popular more than 40 years ago.) The use of little people -- if that's the politically correct term -- in the "North Pole" sequence may be viewed as exploitive by some audience members and, at the performance I attended, this scene was further marred by the inability of Mrs. Claus to keep time with the orchestra. (I'm afraid I can't identify the culprit; two alternate Mrs. C's are listed in the program with no indication of who's on for the various shows.)

The "Living Nativity" is a beautiful finale for the production, or would be if it weren't for the ignorance and selfishness of a large portion of the audience. You don't have to be an expert in photography to know that a camera's flash function is useless at a distance of more than, say, 25 feet -- but this didn't stop people from taking flash photos by the tens of thousands during the nativity scene, thereby ruining what would otherwise have been a lovely moment. If I remember correctly, no announcement forbidding flash photography was made prior to the performance; the Radio City people probably figured that it would be disregarded anyway. (Ironically, most or all of the nativity sequence is performed behind a scrim, which means that photo flashes are not only unnecessary but virtually insure that no decent image will be captured by the cameras.)

I saw The Radio City Christmas Spectacular in early November, soon after it began performances. Although the temperature outside dipped below 30 degrees that evening, it still seemed a bit early to start celebrating the holiday season. But I shouldn't have worried; if this show can't get you in the holiday spirit, nothing can. It's just too bad that audience members with no common sense have to ruin the production's climactic vision.

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