Nothing beats a great pair of legs. Except maybe two dozen of them.
For the past four years, Oklahoma City University alum and OKC resident Karen Boyd Bethel has been one of 24 of the world-famous Rockettes touring the country with the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular.” With each new year, she’s living a childhood dream, high-kicking with the historic dance troupe that began life in 1925.
“I remember seeing them on a holiday special. I think I might have been 4 years old, maybe 5,” Bethel said. “They were so precise, so exact, and I thought, ‘Wow, those girls are really together. I wonder if I could do that.’ Ever since I was a little girl, there’s nothing I really ever wanted to do other than this.”
For the first time ever, Oklahoma City audiences will get to see what “this” is all about, in person, rather than on television, as Radio City Music Hall’s Rockettes bring their New York holiday show to the Ford Center for six performances Friday through Sunday. The metro stop marks nearly the end of a 18-city tour, which finishes up in Texas just after New Year’s.
“This is a unique American institution,” said Jonathan Hochwald, the show’s executive vice president of productions. “We’re bringing New York to you.”
With a running time of 90 minutes, the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” is a multimedia gift for eyes and ears of all ages. Young girls may enjoy seeing the Rockettes’ sparkly costumes; their fathers, the lithe bodies squeezed into those sparkly costumes.
Either way, the stage show zooms through 13 scenes of winter wonder, interspersing the Rockettes’ showstopping precision dance routines with a story that follows Santa Claus to the North Pole; a condensed version of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” performed by dancers in oversized stuffed-animal costumes; and a living nativity for a rousing, reason-for-the-season finale complete with live animals. But wait ” there’s more! Act now and you’ll also get fireworks, confetti, a fake-flake snowstorm, camels, sheep, angels, little people, a vocal cameo from superstar crooner Tony Bennett and ” spoiler alert! ” a boy who can fly.
The show is both technical and technological. For the former, the Rockettes execute difficult routines in simultaneous steps, whether donning duds as reindeer, candy canes, snow queens or toy soldiers. For the latter, an immense, 25-by-65-foot LED screen becomes a vital part of the action through animation and live-action footage ” a feature that, according to Hochwald, “you can only do in 2008.”
“This is something that we literally spend 365 days a year preparing for, year upon year, and this is the biggest we’ve ever done,” he said. “It’s a living, breathing show, so it evolves. This show has massive challenges, and we’ve really put so much new technology into it, so that you still have the nostalgic elements ” all the things people love about remembering their own Christmases ” but at the same time, bringing in all this new technology with video screens, flying effects and snow effects, incredible sound, state-of-the-art lights, and it really creates this one-of-a-kind spectacle.”
But for all its dazzling lights and booming sound, the show’s biggest special effect remains its non-digital one: the Rockettes themselves.
Bethel said the flawlessness onstage takes months of preparation and practice, this year starting in early September in a studio in Connecticut, with little more than markings on the floor. Initially, the women were accompanied by a small band ” one keyboardist, one drummer ” during rehearsals, and then elements were slowly added as the “grueling” days wore on, ranging from costume pieces to live animals.
Decade-long Rockette Beth Dukleth, another OCU alum now living in New York City, said, “We have so many different styles of dance, and you have to learn the choreography very, very quickly. You have to pick up fine details, minute details, because we have to dance as a unit. There is no ‘I’ in ‘Rockette.'”
“We did about 20 shows before we opened,” Bethel said.
The show debuted to an eager, packed house on Nov. 7 in Minneapolis’ downtown Target Center, right across the street from First Avenue and the 7th Street Entry, the Twin Cities club made famous by Prince in the 1984 film “Purple Rain.”
Even before Bethel was a Rockette herself, her favorite of the troupe’s routines was the iconic “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.” In that scene, all two dozen Rockettes, decked out like toy soldiers, stand in a straight line and are “shot” by a cannon, causing them to topple like dominoes “¦ in slow motion. Organizers said it’s a fan favorite ” one that has been around since 1933 and arguably best showcases the team’s precision moves.
“It takes a lot of concentration and a lot of practice,” Bethel said.
Dukleth, who plans to keep this job “as long as I can kick,” agreed.
“I love the wooden soldiers,” she said. “It takes concentration and strength, of course. You have to be sharp. You have to be on your line.”
It’s a tough piece, but what Rockettes routine isn’t? Lucky for Bethel, Dukleth and Nita Borchardt, their performing arts classes at OCU helped train them for their gig.
“Getting 24 girls to dance and look like we are the spitting image of each other is very difficult,” said Borchardt, a native Minnesotan who lives in Las Vegas and is now in her eighth year on the kick line. “As dancers, we always want to break out into our own thing and kind of ‘feel’ the show, but for us, we have to dance the same. It’s a very exclusive group of girls, so it’s heartwarming to know that you can be a part of something that’s part of history.”
Unlike football teams, no postgame video playback is conducted to review where things went right and wrong. Bethel said they rely simply on what their directors see “¦ and don’t think they don’t notice.
“I’ve gotten a note before about my finger,” she said. “‘Your finger was out. You should move it in a little.'”
JOY TO THE ARENA
For the former OCU students in the touring troupe, the Oklahoma City dates are particularly special. That goes double for Bethel, since the stop puts her at home for Christmas Day ” the first she and her husband will get to spend together since getting married.
“I was so excited when I saw the schedule,” said Bethel, who spends the rest of the year as a housewife, a dance teacher and a Pilates instructor. “I never thought the show would be in Oklahoma City. It’s such a big deal for us to be there.”
Dukleth, who left OKC in 1996, seconded that emotion.
“I think Oklahoma City is such a wonderful city, has a lot of family values. There’s a lot of tradition there,” she said. “It really feels like home to me when I go there, and I feel like that’s what this show brings, as well: a sense of family, a sense of tradition. I think the city will really embrace us.”
Hochwald said the city is fortunate to be on the tour at all. Because the show is such a massive undertaking wrought with daunting challenges, one really needs to take up a theater for an entire month to make it really work.
“For the first time, we were able to build it specifically with arenas in mind, and to create this experience where no matter where you’re sitting in the arena, you also get these great special effects and all the things you can really do only in an arena,” he said. “So once we figured out how to do arenas, markets like Oklahoma City became a real possibility. You’ve got a beautiful arena there, and it just seemed like a perfect place for the show.”
At the Minneapolis world premiere ” aside from one technical snafu that prevented a touted double-decker bus from appearing, temporarily bringing a musical number to a halt ” audience members were all smiles. The only frowns to be found were planted on the members of the janitorial staff afterward, having to sweep up bucket after bucket of faux snow from every aisle.
Hochwald said he expects the same reaction, even if Oklahoma City audiences are seeing his “Christmas Spectacular” after Christmas.
“That’s the best weekend to celebrate it,” he said.
Added Borchardt, “It’s still the holiday season. A lot of people celebrate through the New Year. You’re definitely going to feel it after, as well.”
And according to Bethel, what difference does a day or two make when you’ve been dreaming Christmas songs since June?
“It’s definitely not a letdown (to see it after Christmas),” she said. “Every day is Christmas for us, since Sept. 10.”
By the time the 18-city tour is over, the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” will have seen “¦
During each show, there are “¦850 yards of red velvet in the “Here Comes Santa Claus” segment 300 pairs of shoes worn between the Rockettes, Santa and the chorus 78 seconds for the shortest Rockettes’ costume change 10 live animals 8 costume changes for the Rockettes
Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, Oklahoma Gazette participated in a press junket in Minneapolis to attend the world premiere and interview the cast.