Radio City's Chinese New Year Spectacular
by Tony Phillips
Gays have long understood the close association between glamorous gowns, high pageantry and Dynasty, but it took me until the year of the boar to figure out that New Tang Dynasty TV (NTDTV) also spells good glamour with just as many shoulder pads as that Denver clan. And the rogue, New York City-based Chinese television station that has just pulled into Radio City Music Hall for a weekend-long stay of its Chinese New Year Spectacular certainly doesn’t skimp on the spectacle.
And what is spectacle, really, but good wardrobe skills paired with an endless costume budget? And budget NTDTV seems to have in spades. A gong clangs loudly as the curtain rises on the opening number and we’re treated to nothing less than the Creation of the World. Dry ice fills the stage as a stunning tableau of richly attired gods, angels and fairies (complete with silver garland halos) hover above it. It’s not long before our heavenly creatures beam to earth sealed in golden bubbles in a video sequence that makes Hubbard’s Scientology creation myth of aliens chained to volcanoes seem, well, grounded. And though I loved the out-there tackiness of it, it’s these video drops that make for NTDTV’s weakest link. While one can see the feasibility of presenting a show with virtually no décor, after awhile the Maxfield Parrish-looking digi-drops — blocky, pristine waterfalls, mountains and lakes — begin to resemble a Lord of the Rings video game. And that’s unfortunate, especially since most of what’s happening in front of them is less Frodo and more Fashion Week.
And while Western higher powers took a post-creation break, NTDTV shoulders on, following its genesis ballet with a Steinway grand accompanied torch number and the rapid-fire introduction of our two deadbeat hosts. While the perennially sashed and gowned May proves lessons learned on the beauty pageant trail need not be squandered in one’s chosen profession, her date Nishi is just a robotic, tuxedoed freak show. Who are these people? Is he a Western Orientalist who mastered the notoriously difficult Cantonese or a self-loathing Asian who has undergone upper eyelid surgery? Either scenario is equally creepy, but these are the choices one is left with when the audience pandering is as appalling bad as: “You guys are truly great!” Still, they’re as informative, but only slightly less hideous than the five-dollar program.
And if five-thousand years of far-flung Chinese spirituality — Buddism, Taoism, Confucianism, even Falan Dafa — mean one thing, it’s wardrobe change. And this is truly where NTDTV excels. Head designer Amy Lee pulls off some miraculous feats: more than one hundred costumes for one dance alone. Her designs range from the pale blue flags bordered by tangerine, yellow and pink that the male soldiers of the cross-dressing Mulan legend let fly right down to a female accompanist who stands up from the Steinway for a bow to reveal the most sumptuous gray silk gown. If I were cutting corners, I would have started with the accompanist, but when it comes to NTDTV and budget restraints, clearly there’s no such thing. And thank God for that.
Another novel aspect of this show is how political it is. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of contemporary China and its atrocious human rights record, but wound up with a ballad about Tiananmen Square and not one, but two ballets addressing the plight of harmless mediation buffs the Falun Gong. Later I learned that NTDTV does not originate on mainland China which would make it dependant on the state, but rather beams in programming that’s highly critical of the Chinese government. And though I’d written off uniformed police dancing with billy clubs after Tina Landau’s choreographed domestic abuse number that was the nadir of Janet Jackson’s 1998 Velvet Rope tour — the last time I saw dancing cops on a New York City stage — the dancing police in the Falun Gong number won me back. It is the year of the pig, after all. But it gets as heavy-handed as the communist hammer and sickle emblazoned across the back of their uniforms, in red, no less, still I found the number far less annoying than those card tables brimming with photos of the horrors perpetrated against the Falun Gong currently clogging New York City streets. Who says the story ballet is dead?
Before NTDTV wrapped their New Year celebration, we were treated to the tale of a self-sacrificing monk somewhere between Madame Butterfly and Michael Jackson, whose charge — introduced by May and Nishi as “Little Stanley Chang” — was a real crowd pleaser, a rousing battle drum number and probably the best dancing in the show as Scott Chin lead an all-male cast through a Chinese cowboy ballet worthy of Sergio Leone. All in all, the monumental company of over 200, including a 50-piece orchestra, didn’t give everyone what they wanted — a young boy across the aisle kept asking for dragons and went home disappointed — but certainly everyone got more than they could have hoped for from a show that announced the reason for their delayed curtain was because they were waiting for a few more buses to arrive. I went in knowing nothing about NTDTV, but left anxious to go home and scour the dial looking for them. Or at least a rerun of Dynasty on The Soap Channel.