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Rockettes' update leaves out key players

Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Through Dec. 8

Verizon Theatre, Grand Prairie


972-854-5111; www.verizontheatre.com and www.radiocitychristmas.com

Posted 7:55am on Saturday, Dec. 01, 2012

Eighteen dazzling Rockettes tap and high-kick in fine fashion across the stage, up and down risers, and even on a moving double-decker bus for more than 90 minutes before the Radio City Christmas Spectacular comes to a curiously abrupt and dissatisfying ending, leaving audience members scratching their heads and saying things like, "I missed the camel."

The famous show, onstage at Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie and co-presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth through Dec. 8, has gotten a facelift for its 85th anniversary. And, as with any 85-year-old who has been nipped, tucked and given B-12 shots, the visual differences are fab.

But for this tour, they've omitted one of the time-honored (some would say sacred) traditions of the show: the live animals that appear onstage during the Living Nativity -- a scene that has been part of the Spectacular since it started in 1933.

For decades, camels, sheep and donkeys have paraded across the stage "toward Bethlehem" with the wise men and shepherds during the telling of the Christmas story from the Bible. Audience members, particularly little ones who've never seen a camel in real life, coo when they see them.

Inexplicably, there are no animals in this show, making the only "living" things in this Nativity scene the humans playing the characters in the story. Without the animals on the big stage, the scene is dull and unsurprising. Some local churches do a "living Nativity" better.

Animals are still used at the Christmas Spectacular onstage now at Radio City Music Hall in New York (and cared for, humanely, by handlers who sleep nearby, according to the show's website).

After hearing some grumbling from those around me opening night, I e-mailed a tour spokesman and received the show's official statement: "We are always looking for ways to keep the Radio City Christmas Spectacular fresh and relevant for our audiences. By incorporating these new creative enhancements, changes are made to some of the existing show elements."

So, I guess animals don't qualify as "fresh and relevant." Call me a 30-something fuddy-duddy, then.

To be fair, the updates to the show are eye-popping. For a number called "New York at Christmas," a red double-decker bus with Rockettes on board moves around the stage, while a 50-foot LED screen behind takes them -- and the audience -- on a tour of the sights of the city, from Radio City Music Hall to the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree to Central Park.

It is special-effects awesome.

During a number titled "Magic Is There," two boys fly high above the stage with Santa into his North Pole workshop, also brought to life by the visual enhancements on the LED screen.

A brief Rockettes retrospective, dating to their founding in 1925 in St. Louis, is among the most interesting additions to this show. And the "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," a number the dancers have been performing with military precision since the dawn of the Christmas Spectacular, continues to be a showstopper.

No one can say the Rockettes themselves are anything less than spectacular, of course. Their legs are the true stars of the show.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" best highlights just how talented and versatile the 22 dancers (18 regulars and four swings) have to be, as it incorporates tap, ballet, jazz and even modern dance. They must have the endurance of distance-runners.

The Living Nativity comes near the end, and even without animals, the final tableau, onstage while Hark! The Herald Angels Sing plays, should close the show. Or, as my 10- and 12-year-old companions suggested, the Rockettes should come back on for another full number.

Instead, following the reverent Nativity, the show's ensemble singers come on to sing a cheesy, jazzed-up rendition of Joy to the World, while the Rockettes appear onstage one last time. It's an odd and sudden change of tone from serious kitsch -- from Vatican to Vegas -- in a matter of a curtain drop.

It's hard to find much negative about a show that's nothing but Christmas cheer for almost two hours. Far be it from me to criticize an 85-year-old who's still kickin'.

But if the show goes on for another 85, I hope it doesn't sacrifice the touches of "special" for the bombast of the "spectacle."

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