At one point in the touring version of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, a show that prides itself on a legacy that dates back to the 1930s, the Rosemont audience is shown archival footage of the Rockettes through the ages. You see the timelessly unison, famously long-legged dancing ladies backstage in the 1930s, looking sad as New York hit hard times, entertaining troops during World War II, and so on. It's a slick package designed to burnish the reputations of Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden Entertainment and, of course, the Rockettes themselves (the latter is a golden brand, because it can abide as individuals come and go). But there's still an inevitable takeaway from seeing the newsreel stuff.
In the early years, the Rockettes were just one step up from burlesque.
There's a noble history of burlesque artistry, of course, and I mean no disparagement. And the change has been progressive. Still, the old footage makes a striking contrast with the company of talented women who now carry this tradition forward under the superb director-choreographer Linda Haberman, who has essentially wrenched the Rockettes away from the bare-legged gestalt and turned them into a legitimate populist dance company exploring the appeal (and, on a deeper level, the limitations) of dancing as one. Now, I don't mean to imply that you're watching Alvin Ailey or Pilobolus. The Rockettes still play reindeer — attached to a sleigh and replete with glow-in-the-dark antlers. And they still collapse like wooden soldiers (although that's a proven routine of which any performance company could be proud). But, in general, they are more dignified in the 2012 edition of this show than at any of the other 10 times or so I've seen them out there kicking.
Haberman has promoted the vocabulary of Irish step, more fluid jazz, even a touch of hip-hop. In other words, she sets up the Rockettes as 18 women who can do a great deal, both separately and together, and who are generously wrapping up their skills with Christmas glitz for your family entertainment. It's very shrewd, and you find yourself in a certain kind of awe at this great dancing machine before you, disciplined as can be in our undisciplined world.
Most holiday shows end up being a lot less different than they claim in advance, ever anxious to attract repeat buyers. The Radio City show, which opened in Rosemont on a Friday night when we all needed a little of the spirit of Christmas, really is quite different from the show that was here between 1997 and 2008 (although, alas, the music is still on tape; live musicians, as in New York, would be a most welcome change). In the first instance, the animals are gone from the famous Nativity scene (I had an affection for a particularly busy camel, but life in a trailer in Rosemont is no place for an ungulate in winter). So are the little people who once featured prominently in Santa's Workshop. In general, the streamlined show has a more contemporary and theatrical feeling — a kid on the stage now reads the introduction to the Nativity, replacing the Voice of God (or was that the mayor of Rosemont?) that once rang from the speakers. But the Living Nativity retains its force and dignity; and it ends with a new, rousing, Gospel-like finale, borrowing from Langston Hughes' "Black Nativity," even if the cast is not especially diverse.
The other big change is a massive video backdrop about which I have mixed feelings. The 50-foot screen is used with moderate artistry (no more than that), and it does allow for a terrific sequence wherein the Rockettes take a double-decker bus tour (live and in motion) around an airbrushed New York City backdrop. But the moment you go to such heavily digitized environments, you reduce some of the wow factor. We're all familiar — over-familiar — with the limitless things that screens can show us. When your currency is tradition, three-dimensional scenery is the better bet. At the very least, some of this video could be retooled with an eye for human warmth. Santa (played by the genial Brent Bateman) can't do it all.
The Village of Rosemont certainly has taken that message to heart. River Road, the means by which most folks arrive at this theater, is now home to a spectacular array of lights that surely will have any small faces in your charge pressed up against the window of the car and more than primed for Rockettes and reindeer.
Through Dec. 30 at the Akoo Theatre at Rosemont. Running time: 2 hours. Tickets: $30-$75.50 at 800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com