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A Santa-Centric Spectacular 

Rockettes blast off, leaving rest of show aground

Who said the Rockettes were absolutely perfect? I was at Ovens Auditorium on opening night of the historic 35-performance homestand of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and from Row D, I detected a flaw. At the start of Act 2, one of the ensemble in the Raggedy Anne doll segment -- shocking, truly shocking! -- marched onstage without one of her red vinyl cheek spots.

Other than that, you had to be pretty churlish not to admire the drilled synchronicity of the Rockettes. Not even a protractor could have detected any imprecision in the famed "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" routine, as the 18 lovelies formed crisscrossing lines that revolved on a pinpoint axis.

Leg kicks were as high, synchronized and on-the-beat as advertised. But there's more to the Rockettes, I discovered, than those finely calibrated kicks. Or the red uniforms and red lipstick that exactly match those vinyl patches.

They tapped exuberantly, wielding hoop-sized wreaths, in the opening "We Need a Little Christmas" scene. Up in Santa's Workshop, they charmed in their dolly outfits and even tossed in a dash of comedy -- with an incongruous round of naughty folies bergere kicks. Frilly and silly.

Why, the Rockettes even marched onstage as majorettes, wearing miniature xylophones on their backs, and banged out a little tune with drumsticks. In unison, of course.

OK, there are only 18 leggy legends in the touring company onstage at Ovens through January 1, compared with the 36 you'd see if you made the pilgrimage to Radio City Music Hall. That's a 50% gam reduction! But top ticket prices at Ovens are $65, compared with $99 at the Rockettes' holy shrine.

How many replications of Rockette do we really need? I must confess that even 36 legs are too many to focus on simultaneously from the front orchestra.

While I emerged a true Rockette believer, I found the rest of the Spectacular too Santa-centric. Part of the blame goes to the plastic performance of Tom Gamblin, lost in a wasteland of commercialized Kringles he takes as his model, and part goes to PRG Audio, unable to outfit this Santa with a clear-channel wireless mike.

The material gets pretty bad, too, perhaps most notably in "Santa's Gonna Rock and Roll." One simple question: Why?

Our brief visit to Macy's, during the "Christmas In New York" scene, paled next to the joys of Miracle on 34th Street, and I strongly suspect that our sojourn at Rock Plaza, somewhat leaden here, is perked up by an impromptu skating rink when you shell out $99 to be wowed. But I'll admit that the conceit of the Radio City Nutcracker, with dancing teddy bears playing all the roles -- including pandas for the "Chinese Tea Box" -- yielded a few chuckles.

The stately pageantry of "The Living Nativity" will be welcomed by zealots who believe the meaning of Christmas goes deeper than Santa's infallibility -- and abhorred by those who demand a full evening of pap for their entertainment dollar. Camels clomp across the stage, eloquently evoking ancient Judea. They and the insouciant donkey outclass the skittish sheep as thespians.

One of the best reasons to treasure Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors is that it's one of the very few Christmas miracle stories to package comedy with inspiration. King Kaspar, one of the three kings who drop in on Amahl and his mom on the way to Bethlehem, is a bit doddering, superstitious, and hard of hearing. We can have some fun with him.

Menotti, who always writes his own libretti, also has fun with the whole miracle thing. Amahl tells his mom that there's a big new star in the sky with a tail as long as a wagon. Mom tells her son to stop lying, sparking a righteous protest from the crippled Amahl, who hops around on a crutch. Then Mom catalogues Amahl's past fantasies and dispatches the boy to bed. His sincerity only yields misgivings from his hard-luck mamma that poverty and hunger are beginning to erode his wits.

So you can safely predict the imminent merriment when the Three Kings come knocking at the door and the weary Mom sends Amahl to answer it. Opera Carolina, in its chamber-scale production of the work last weekend at McGlohon Theatre, delivered the comedy admirably.

Perhaps that's because the Menotti script, artfully milking the comedy for primetime TV's family viewers, is impervious to tampering and incompetence. Directing the joyful and inspirational spots in the 47-minute production, Chad Calvert wasn't nearly as successful.

When Matthew Carlson as Amahl had the assistance of Yolanda Denise Bryant as Mother -- or Dale Bryant as King Kaspar -- the thrust of the action came through sharply enough. But when Carlson had nothing more than Amahl's crutch to lean on, results weren't as pleasing.

At the beginning, for instance, Amahl is playing on his pipe. Looking at Carlson's expressionless face, you might wonder why. I presume Calvert informed the young singing actor sometime during the rehearsal process that Amahl enjoys music and music-making, but apparently it didn't take.

Here we were diverted by the beauty of oboist Stephen Westman's playing as Amahl's surrogate. But at the climax of the drama, when Amahl offers his crutch to the newborn king -- and able to walk an instant later -- the moment needed to be owned entirely by Carlson, including the magic.

At this pivotal point, Menotti better understands the vicissitudes of relying on a child actor to deliver the goods. The celebratory singing and dancing that breaks out after the miracle ensures that the impact eventually registers.

Emily Jarrell Urbanek, directing from the keyboard, often achieved better success with the piano than with her singers and the Opera Carolina Chorus. Adding the oboe was a welcome new wrinkle in this OC staple, but not a lavish one. Similarly, Martha Connerton kept the peasant choreography on a humble scale that would please rather than astonish a king.

We can't predict how long Nikki Adkins will be a fixture with the Tarradiddle Players, lending her pixie energies to the title roles of The Velveteen Rabbit and The Littlest Angel at Wachovia Playhouse. But hopefully these are just the beginning of the good old days at ImaginOn and at area schools where Tarradiddle tours for Children's Theatre of Charlotte.

Not that we don't appreciate the versatility of Greta Marie Zandstra as the Understanding Angel who tries to ease the Littlest's adjustment to life beyond the pearly gates. Rasheeda Moore projects warmth and confidence as the Gate Keeper, and director Jill Bloede keeps the comedy coming.

Adkins is definitive, already ranking alongside Mark Sutton and Steven Ivey in the CT pantheon.

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