Last year, my husband and I had ordered tickets for the new Radio City Rockettes show, Heart and Lights, only to find that it was cancelled less than a week before the scheduled opening. Rumors abounded as to what the issues were: problems with the music, problems with the book, problems with the pre-sales, personality and artistic conflicts among the producers and the writers were all named as culprits in various interviews and articles. Unlike a production in a Broadway theater, Radio City has multiple performances and events scheduled which preclude postponing a production, since there is a limited and specific window of stage availability, so the entire production was tabled until this year.
As part of the revamping, the original plot involving some cousins and a grandmother was tossed and replaced with a new plot involving an angel trying to get his wings, a money-grubbing billionaire, and an aging NYC tour guide. Doesn’t sound like much of an improvement, right? Well, it’s a Rockette show. To quote a lyric from 42nd Street, “Who cares if there’s a plot or not when you’ve got a lot of dames?” No-one comes to see the Rockettes for the plot. We want to see 72 (in this cast, it was actually 84) gorgeous legs kicking in perfect synchronization. We want flashy costumes and high-tech stagecraft and cheesy “rah-rah, New York” numbers. Fortunately, the revised show, renamed the New York Spring Spectacular, has all that – and more.
This production does a great job of updating the Rockettes’ age-old formula. There’s still plenty of sharp, crisp, precision dancing with impressively synchronized kicklines, but the opening number, choreographed by So You Think You Can Dance choreographer, Mia Michaels (who has plenty of other legitimate choreography credits, but SYTYCD put her on the map for the general, non-dancing public), uses a much more contemporary style of dance, with plenty of hip hop and athletic cheerleader-inspired moves. The choreography throughout the show incorporates a lot of fun props, including umbrellas, basketballs, hockey sticks, footballs, baseball bats and gloves, and bouquets of flowers. In addition to Broadway veteran Laura Benanti (who, on top of her Broadway credits, is recognizable for her role as the Baroness in the television production of The Sound of Music Live! in 2013 and her role on the television show Nashville), the cast features Derek Hough of Dancing with the Stars fame, both names somewhat familiar to the general public.
The production also wisely uses a mix of traditional and contemporary music. The score includes Broadway classics like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Easter Parade,” and “I Could Have Danced All Night,” American standards like “The Way You Look Tonight” and “New York, New York,” contemporary pop numbers including an instrumental version of Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York“ and Demi Lovato’s “Neon Lights,” as well as a number of original (albeit somewhat forgettable) compositions written for the show. Benanti’s impressive Broadway chops are shown to their best advantage throughout the show, and Hough shows off a surprisingly impressive voice as well, more than holding his own against his talented partner.
The cute but mostly forgettable plot is (as is fairly standard for any Rockette production) mainly an excuse for the Rockettes to dance around iconic NYC landmarks, including Central Park, Times Square, the Statue of Liberty (an enormous animatronic puppet voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, who also voices God), a Fashion Week catwalk, the top of the Empire State Building, the New York Public Library (complete with animatronic lion statues hilariously voiced by Tina Fey and Amy Poheler) and the homes of several New York sports teams.
These multiple scenes also allow for a parade of flashy costumes, from very traditional glittery leotards to matching yellow rainboots and slickers to ballgowns to various sports uniforms to LED-lighted tux jackets, most of them clearly designed to show off the dancers' famous legs (prompting Benanti to hilariously ask at one point, “Don't you people ever wear PANTS?”).
In addition to the “name” stars and the Rockettes themselves, the high-tech stagecraft was practically its own character in the show. Each audience member is given a pair of 3D glasses and an LED wristband upon entering the theater. A brief but effective 3D segment near the beginning of the show draws the audience in, and the LEDs pull them in even further as they light up in coordination with the Rockettes’ costumes, reminiscent of a rock concert or a Superbowl game, as everyone raises their wrists and cranes around at the effect.
Other flashy tech effects include a large kite flying over the audience, jumbotron-like projections from onstage Steadicams (some actually working in real time, others faking pre-recorded video), and a huge upstage video wall projecting detailed sets that are seamlessly incorporated into the physical sets.
But much like my comments in On the Town (see my review here), it was often the minor characters and small details that brought the show together. The character of Bernie, played by Broadway vet Lenny Wolpe; dancer Jared Grimes as Benanti’s fast-talking, fast-dancing assistant; Bernie’s cute but not-too-precocious grandchildren; featured vocalist LaVon Fisher-Wilson; the multiple animatronic characters (Alice in Wonderland, as well as the previously-mentioned Statue of Liberty and NYPL lions); a magical costume change when Benanti’s red tailored dress transforms instantly into a floaty ballgown; a pair of aerialists descending from the rafters; and a recurring bit with a group of crossing dogs that grows in number from 1 to 9 over the course of the show all add lovely moments of charm and humor to the production.
There may not be a huge amount of substance to this show, but the flash, the sweetness, and the genuine love of the city of New York all come together to make a winning combination that could very aptly have kept the production’s original name of Heart and Lights – but which just as aptly deserves the current moniker of Spectacular!