NEW YORK -- Lately, there's been this little problem with the living Christmas trees.
They're supposed to be whimsical, true; "each tree can have its own persona," acknowledges Howard Kolins, production stage manager of the Magnificent Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. But a few shows back, the dancers beneath the foam-and-fabric costumes, emboldened by a few moments of creative freedom in the otherwise regimented 90-minute Spectacular ("New York's greatest holiday tradition in the Showplace of Our Nation"), got carried away.
They were becoming "downright campy," Kolins fretted. Instead of prancing about the Great Stage among the Santa-suited Rockettes, certain trees were shimmying, walking like Egyptians, twirling their tinseled garlands lasso-like over their heads. Kolins told them to knock it off. At the next show the trees, having nicknamed themselves The Petrified Forest, filed out droopily, executing a few sulky pirouettes. "Now they're pouting," Kolins had groaned.
But the Spectacular must go on. Kolins and the trees have now reached rapprochement, he thinks; they'll be sprightly, not hyperactive. And Santa's Workshop has rolled easily offstage on its new heavy-duty casters at each performance so far, in contrast to the breakdown last year that forced Santa to ad-lib in front of the curtain for two minutes while the stagehands struggled to strike the set. To date, furthermore, only one cast member has complained of being kicked by a camel during the traditional finale, the Living Nativity. This afternoon's performance should unfold smoothly.
It's the 19th of 20 shows this week, the fourth week of the production's eight. Radio City Music Hall Productions will shoehorn 152 shows into this pre-Thanksgiving to post-New Year season, and more than 800,000 people will come (at $27 per orchestra seat) to have their hearts very professionally warmed.
The Magnificent Christmas Spectacular (producers at Radio City, with its Mighty Wurlitzers and Great Stage, are prone to hyperbole) is a live variety show including -- in the form of the fabulous Rockettes -- girls! girls! girls! It's the Ice Capades without ice, an Andy Williams Christmas Special without Andy or Osmonds, Oberammergau without passion.
Mostly it's a triumph of stagecraft, with flying sleds and a floating orchestra pit, 117 cast members including six "little people" playing elves (one on a skateboard), eight sheep (three of them understudies), 32 dancing "bears" in 200 yards of fake fur, all being lowered onto, winched over, carrouseled around and toted off the World's Largest Stage (at 9,500 square feet) by 65 stagehands, 28,000 gallons of hydraulic fluid and three elevators.
As such, it's far more fun to watch from behind the World's Largest Theatrical Curtain than from the plush seats out front. Except, perhaps, for Howard Kolins, who is sipping herb tea -- "Mint Magic, very soothing" -- as the 2:30 show gets underway with its ursine version of "The Nutcracker."
A bear in a tutu is lying on the floor doing thigh stretches; Bob Cratchit, up next in a miniaturized "A Christmas Carol," awaits his cue. For all its technical wizardry the Great Stage affords practically no wing space; much of the set- and costume-changing takes place here at stage right, just a few feet beyond the audience's sightlines, with seconds to spare.
Even as sweating dancers are struggling out of their bear suits (one of them, later to become a skater on a pop-up silicon mini-rink, wears curlers underneath), storefronts are revolving into position behind a drape. The crew has 70 seconds to lose Tchaikovsky and set up 19th-century London.
"Horse coming through, please," calls one of the handlers from the Dawn Animal Agency of Colt's Neck, N.J., who hitches the chestnut to a carriage, pulls a long cloak over his own sweater and sneakers to become a coachman, then coaxes his animal out onto the stage.
Cloaks hide a multitude of tricks hereabouts. Some of the bears are changing into Londoners behind the storefronts, and the dressers will have smuggled their discarded fur offstage under cloaks -- "sort of pregnant Dickensians," Kolins says -- by the time the storefronts revolve again to reveal the Cratchits' living room.
Following Scrooge's musical and much-abbreviated metamorphosis, the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra will begin its flashy migration, its tiered gondola rising 10 feet from the orchestra pit, rolling backward 30 feet (a stagehand underneath steering it along a track), then ascending at the rear of the stage, its 40 members sawing imperturbably away at "Sleigh Ride."
After which, lip-syncing carolers will croon from the Choral Stairs rising above the audience from either side of the stage. Plastic confetti snow will be shaken from the rafters and immediately swept up by four men with brooms lest it later trip up a Rockette routine. The "ice rink" will materialize from a subbasement long enough for two skaters and two snowmen to take a spin.
Enter the living Christmas trees. "They're relatively calm today," reports Peter Muste, one of several stage managers patrolling the wings with walkie-talkies.
And so it goes until 4 p.m., corny chaos carefully choreographed by Bob Jani, former president of Radio City Music Hall Productions, who created the show in 1979 and mounted the current version in 1985. "What makes something spectacular is, about every 10 seconds, something new is entering your consciousness," Jani philosophizes by phone from California, where he now runs his own production company. "And as it builds, you become caught up in the grandness."
Grandeur is routine at Radio City -- there's been a Christmas show since 1933, the year after the hall's opening -- but it used to come in less concentrated doses, a 30-minute stage show followed by a first-run movie. That formula was losing millions each year by the 1960s, however; by the '70s, the art deco palace faced death by wrecking ball or ruin by sale of air rights. The Spectacular, esthetic judgments aside, helped restore profitability in 1985 and "has literally kept the hall alive," Jani says.
It has also kept alive the fabulous Rockettes, sort of. Thirty-six of them appear in the Spectacular, climbing into padded satin "fat suits" for the Twelve Days of Christmas number ("It's like dancing in a mattress," one confides grimly), affixing red paper "cheeks" with double-stick tape for the Toy Soldier routine. It's no longer a full-time gig, being a Rockette; for nine months of the year, they have to be something else. But from November into January, they still perform their "eye-high kicks" and there are still suitors at the stage door.
The other perennial in the Magnificent Christmas Spectacular is the Living Nativity, for which Wise Men are already gathering by the water cooler. "That's Bethlehem rolling out towards us now," Howard Kolins explains.
Practically the whole cast has robed up to play kings and shepherds, to be joined by the animals, which always makes the kings and shepherds slightly nervous. Sheep are no problem, Kolins says; "they just stand there and chew," occasionally on costumes or the tape marking stage spots. George, the senior of the show's three camels, is given a wider berth. He kicks, warns the Madonna. "One time in five years and the guy's got a bad reputation," Kolins protests. "This business is cutthroat."
Mary I (a k a Stunt Mary because she rides the donkey) and Joseph I (who pulls said donkey) are in the on-deck circle ready to plod wearily across the stage. Joseph and Mary II will gaze adoringly into a manger that cradles a quartz flood that produces a properly celestial light.
No sooner has the procession stepped off toward Bethlehem than cast members report having to dodge donkey and camel souvenirs onstage. "Put 'em in your pockets," Kolins says, unapologetic about what is an occupational hazard. "Nativities are hell."
In 90 whirlwind minutes it is over. Even before the audience has battled its way back out onto Sixth Avenue, Bethlehem is receding; the angels on high are winched up still higher, out of sight.
Stagehands are mopping the front of the stage with Coca-Cola to make it less slippery for the dancers' next show. Proppers stash the frankincense and myrrh and set out the living Christmas trees' costumes and garlands again.
There's a rare, three-hour break before the last show of the day, and of the week. Kolins goes out for a bite. Some of the Rockettes drift toward a lounge where cots are set up for the weary. The others make a dash downtown; Macy's is having a one-day sale.