'New York Spring Spectacular': Theater Review

Courtesy of Madison Square Garden Entertainment
The Rockettes in the 'New York Spring Spectacular'
Extra cheese with that?

Derek Hough plays an angel sent back to Earth to cure techie entrepreneur Laura Benanti of her cynicism and save a tour guide's job in Radio City's elaborate new Rockettes showcase.

For a show hell-bent on convincing us that no virtual substitute can equal the authentic Big Apple experience, the New York Spring Spectacular conjures one that could hardly be more synthetic. The perennial kitschy attractions of the traditional Radio City entertainment — that orchestra ascending from the pit, those high-kicking Rockettes drilled to regimental perfection — are all but smothered in an over-produced, under-conceived vehicle that's drowning in flashy bells and whistles but sadly short on genuine magic or joy. The family tourist crowd will flock, but this ADHD sightseeing barrage has way more commercial sponsorship than creative spark.

The first Rockettes spring show since 1997 has a tortured history. Designed as an Easter event to match the durable Radio City Christmas Spectacular, it was originally titled Heart and Lights, and was scheduled to open in March 2014, with reported development costs at the time of $25 million. But Madison Square Garden Entertainment executive chairman James L. Dolan pulled the plug a week before performances were to start, bringing Harvey Weinstein on board to rebuild the thing from scratch, hence the year-long postponement.

Weinstein recruited emerging playwright Joshua Harmon (Bad Jews) to write the infantile script, and signed up Broadway regular Warren Carlyle (After Midnight) to direct and choreograph, with Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner brought on as creative directors. Presumably one is responsible for traffic control and the other two for overall vision, though it seems doubtful that any of them will be listing this ersatz spectacle among their proudest achievements.

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A Tony winner for Pippin, Paulus is also directing the upcoming Finding Neverland, which is Weinstein's first Broadway show as lead producer. In another bit of cross-pollination, the composers of that musical — '90s boy-band survivor Gary Barlow and Brit-pop tunesmith Eliot Kennedy — have contributed three original songs here. The less said about those disposable jingles the better. Elsewhere, the show shuffles standards with contemporary hits, as in a bouncy opening number choreographed by Mia Michaels of So You Think You Can Dance, in which the Rockettes file on to Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York."

Dancing With the Stars fixture Derek Hough plays Jack, an angel in limbo waiting for his wings. God (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg) sends him back to NYC, where Bernie (Lenny Wolpe), a veteran city tour guide who takes enormous pride in his job, is about to be kicked to the curb by narcissistic tech billionaire Jenna (Laura Benanti). (Her company slogan is "JennaWorld: It’s Better Than Yours.") Jenna plans to nix old-school tours and make the whole operation virtual, as demonstrated in a 3D potted history of Manhattan, from its Native American days through Henry Hudson's arrival to the sprouting skyscrapers that define the modern-day cityscape. Bernie accepts his fate but Jack intervenes, persuading Jenna to take the traditional tour just once before making a final decision.

In addition to 3D glasses, audience members get an LED wristband emblazoned with the logo of corporate sponsor Chase, which lights up and changes color every time Jack gives Bernie a celestial assist. Coordinated with what's happening onstage, this yields some mildly diverting techno tricks that will wow the under-5 set, though it eventually starts to feel as random as the appearances of the Despicable Me minions, the annoying Easter Bunny, or the gratuitous celebrity video cameos. ("Look, it's the Donald!")

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First stop on Bernie's tour is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Degas ballerinas come to life in a charming interlude, accompanied by the luscious-voiced Benanti singing "I Could Have Danced All Night." But Carlyle and the creative team don't give the moment time to breathe, instead crowding it amongst Ancient Egyptian maidens (one of whom mystifyingly tangos with Hough), Papua New Guinean ceremonial tribesmen (surely everyone's must-see Met highlight), knights in armor, Manet's matador and a tableau vivant of George Washington crossing the Delaware. It makes Night at the Museum seem restful.

Next up is Central Park, where they hook up with Bernie's tech-savvy grandchildren and share a Tea Party joke with the animatronic Alice in Wonderland statue (voiced by Bella Thorne). The Rockettes do a sweet "Singin' in the Rain"/"Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" routine with umbrellas under a real downpour, with Jenna's right-hand man Marshall (Jared Grimes) joining Jack to channel Gene Kelly by tap-dancing in puddles.

But for every refreshingly old-fashioned sequence in the show there's another crass attempt to drag it into the digital age. One such dud is a sloppily assembled, overstuffed clip reel of New York movies, which indiscriminately slaps together classics like Breakfast at Tiffany's, Sweet Smell of Success and West Side Story with howlers like the heinous Annie remake. In an age when unemployed stoners are posting polished montages on YouTube, the laziness and lack of imagination in the edit is depressing.

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A trip to Times Square provides a platform for shameless corporate whoring, with massive billboards for Chase and fellow sponsor Norwegian Cruise Line — though those are almost discreet compared to the prominent spot for Finding Neverland. And hey look, it's Paddington Bear, star of the recent TWC release! More cross-promotion follows, with a plug for the Weinstein exec-produced Project Runway in a spectackylar Fashion Week segment. Designers Isaac Mizrahi, Diane von Furstenburg and Zac Posen pop up in video inserts to blather about inspiration while a handful of Rockettes strut to songs by Pharrell Williams, Beyonce and others. This proves that the world's most iconic synchronized dance troupe can do generic hoochie moves, too.

Demonstrating the show's mission to provide something for everyone, a bloated sports section comes next, with unexciting dances built around New York’s beloved hockey, basketball, football and baseball teams. "The energy is flat-out amazing," enthuses a game commentator. Uh, not really. And not even Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler can do much to punch up the tired material written for them as voices of the lions on the Public Library steps.

There's a breath of transporting elegance, however, in a scene on the Empire State Building observation deck, in which Hough and Benanti glide around to "The Way You Look Tonight," surrounded by the Rockettes in a ballroom ballet. It's around this point you start to realize what a relief it is to watch performances actually happening right there in front of you and not part of the chaotic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink multimedia overload. (I could have lived without the incongruously circusy aerialists.) Designer Patrick Fahey's set for this scene, enhanced with projection elements, is among the production's more evocative recreations, along with the Grand Central Station atrium from the opening.

Read more Tony Winner Laura Benanti on Dancing at Radio City with the Rockettes

Kids will possibly get a kick out of the giant animatronic Statue of Liberty talking head, though frankly, I found her a little creepy — in a Planet of the Apes way. And the Ellis Island immigrant history reel seems like an educational Epcot castoff. The show is on more captivating ground in the finale, when it returns the action to Radio City and the Rockettes flash their radiant smiles while doing a top hat-and-cane kick line as confetti showers the audience.

The producers deserve credit for casting performers with bona fide skills; even if Broadway pros Benanti, Wolpe and tapmeister Grimes are slumming it, they escape with their dignity. And audiences couldn't ask for a more personable pilot to steer them through this wearying 90 minutes than Hough, who sings with confidence and is so blond and wholesome and chipper he could be captain of the Mark Twain Riverboat at Disneyland. But the cavernous stage belongs to the Rockettes alone.

"There's no substitute for the real thing," says penitent convert Jenna, and she's right.

Cast: Laura Benanti, Derek Hough, Lenny Wolpe, Jared Grimes, Emily Rosenfeld, Paige Brady, Colin Critchley, Grayson Taylor, The Rockettes, Chelsea Packard, Crista Moore, Mathieu Leopold, Sarah Romanowsky, LaVon Fisher-Wilson
Voices: Whoopi Goldberg, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Bella Thorne
Director-choreographer: Warren Carlyle
Creative directors: Diane Paulus, Randy Weiner
Writer: Joshua Harmon
Original songs: Gary Barlow, Eliot Kennedy
Set designer: Patrick Fahey
Lighting designer: David Agress
Costume designer: ESosa
Sound designer: Keith Caggiano
Video & projection designer: Batwin + Robin Productions
Orchestrations: Larry Blank, Ned Ginsburg, Simon Hale, Larry Hochman, Michael Starobin, Daniel Troob
Music supervisor: Patrick Vaccariello
Opening number choreographer: Mia Michaels
Executive producers: James L. Dolan, Victoria Parker, Julie Oh
Producer: Harvey Weinstein
Presented by Madison Square Garden Entertainment, Weinstein Live Entertainment

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