And a Child Shall Lead Them … Elsewhere

Posted December 25, 2017 6:59 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The tap number set to the “The Twelve Days of Christmas” had just hit six geese a-laying when Ada, my 4-year-old, asked if we could leave. She’d slunk so far down in her seat that she was practically on the floor and she slunk further when I whispered that we were staying. Then the pear tree burst into flames again.

It was Ada’s first time seeing the “Christmas Spectacular” at Radio City Music Hall. And even though I’ve lived in New York for almost two decades, it was my first time, too. I grew up in Los Angeles, a place where people hang twinkly lights in palm trees and Santas run around in board shorts. Holiday shows have never done a lot for me.

But here’s the thing about children. You want to give them all the good things you had and a lot of the good things you didn’t have. Ada can handle a 90-minute show. She has sat through the circus and clapped along to Elephant & Piggie’s “We Are in a Play.” So when she saw the posters and asked if we could go, I said yes.

As we’d missed the press dates by about a month, I went online to TodayTix and scored a couple of discounted orchestra seats, $55 each, down from $100, which made me feel pretty savvy. The next morning she put on tights and a velvet dress while I packed a bag with water and granola bars and her sparkly shoes, because, unlike me, Ada is a real New Yorker and she knows that we keep our sneakers on until we’re out of the subway.

Ours is an interfaith household. I was raised Jewish, my husband’s higher power is the Minnesota Vikings. On the train, I started to worry about the famous nativity scene. Ada has a little brother she mostly adores and sometimes resents. Wise men showering a baby boy with gifts might upset her. But she told me that thanks to her chocolate advent calendar, “I already know the Jesus part.” Fine work, chocolate.

After a quick tour of the Rockefeller Center ice skaters and a stop for a banana, we braved the security lines and entered Radio City, which is a marvel and a palace. It was full of cheery-looking families shaking off the cold and posing for pictures with cardboard cutout Rockettes. (Apparently a human Rockette circulated, too, but I missed her.)

Hustling past the merchandise stands and the cotton candy, I found our seats, halfway back. Projections of snowflakes danced overhead while an organ puffed carols.

Ada was thrumming with excitement and I promised myself to give the critical instinct a rest; as Santa tells a sulky teen during a cheeseball book scene, “the wonder of Christmas is always closer than you think if you can remember to see it through a child’s eyes.”

Santa, I remembered. And I tried. But my child’s eyes were looking for the exit.

The “Spectacular” jumbles the sacred and the secular, the old-fashioned and the newfangled. It was last overhauled in 2007, though the drone snowflakes and the psychedelic projections, like the opening design, which bedecked the ceiling in fir boughs and exploding honeycombs, feel like more recent additions.

The music was energetically played and energetically bland. When our crowd shouted an anemic, “Happy holidays!” Santa chortled an unconvincing, “What a group! What a time! What a place!” (It’s tough to be too enthusiastic at 11 a.m.)

Still, I was glad to confirm, in person, that the Rockettes make most Broadway choruses look like wet spaghetti. Elite military units must train with less precision. Every knee, every elbow, every tilted chin was perfectly aligned and the coordinated high kicks? Sublime.

Not all of the “Spectacular” scenes use the Rockettes wisely, like a Santa’s workshop sequence celebrating consumerism. A highlight, at least for me, was the classic toy soldier dance, in which a cannonball slow-motion slays the corps. “This is a weird part,” Ada whispered.

Another weird part: Dancers wearing stuffed animal costumes performing ethnic ballets from the “Nutcracker.”

“Are nutcrackers real?” Ada asked.

Scenes followed one another without much connection, and the shift to the graver spectacle of the Living Nativity was abrupt, though the donkey, two camels and a small flock of ewes reminded me of a line of Handel’s “Messiah” I’d misheard throughout childhood as, “Oh, we like sheep!”

We do. Ada brought me up short when she asked, “Did all of that really happen?” I should have packed more chocolate.

For most critics I know, to love something is a relief and a delight. I wanted Ada to love the “Christmas Spectacular.” More than that I wanted us to love it together, like sheep, like peach ice cream. Ten years later, I wanted to be one of those mothers in the security line, smiling up at their teen daughters and saying, “We’ve been coming since she was four.”

That won’t happen. Ada can’t say why she squirmed her way through the show. Neither can I.

She’s still lobbying for a ticket to “Frozen.”

Event information:

“Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes” runs through Dec. 31 at Radio City Musical Hall, Manhattan; 866-858-0007, rockettes.com.