FORT MYERS — Three hundred costumes. Two hundred hats. Eight pairs of shoes per dancer. Two camels. Four sheep. One donkey. Countless Swarovski crystals. Acres of chiffon and spandex. And eighteen Rockettes performing 300 eye-high kicks per show, sometimes four shows a day.
Add lights, sound, a little snow, maybe a Santa or two, and voilà - it's the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular."
Beneath the dazzling New York skyline and underneath the acres of stretch velvet, there's an army of young women - all 5'6" to 5'10"1/2 - who train for six hours a day, six days a week and burn an estimated 600-800 calories per show. Jenny Laroche, a Rockette since 2008, says the rewards - especially for children - are worth it.
"[The best part] is setting lasting memories for people of all ages - adults, children," Laroche said.
Laroche loves the "Santa's Workshop" number, with its interactive segments, that feature the Rockettes dressed in billowing red petticoats under colorful print dresses and red dots on each cheek. Special Mary Jane-style tap shoes with green silk bows complete the look.
Brittany Lents, a Rockette since 2002, favors "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers;" a staple of the show, its been performed at every Radio City Christmas Spectacular since 1933.
The "Wooden Soldiers" number features costumes designed by Vincente Minelli, who directed films like "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "An American in Paris." Each Rockette wears a 24-inch-tall hat during the number, with a brim that obscures their view - they perform the entire complicated routine looking at the floor, using only their peripheral vision.
Lents prefers "Wooden Soldiers" because "there's something about it. It exactly defines what we do and how we are picked to be Rockettes. To me, that embodies what we're about ... hard work and practice ... repetition and rehearsal to get it exactly right every time with no mistakes. There's nothing else in our show that showcases it better."
Getting in and out of the elaborate costumes becomes an art form - some changes require less than a minute, Lents said, although there are dressers to aid the transformation from wooden soliders to rag dolls to reindeer to the iconic red Santa-inspired costumes. Rockettes also do all their own hair and make-up.
One number, "The Living Nativity," features live animals - camels, sheep and a donkey - on stage - and live animals and theater don't always mix, as Laroche recounts.
"Our sheep went into labor," Laroche says, "luckily it didn't it happen on stage! We let her go on maternity leave; when she came back, she was not ready." The animal whined when it came time to go on stage, Laroche said, overpowering the music. "You feel bad," Laroche continued, "but at the same time there's just a whining sheep on stage and you're like 'poor thing - she needs to stay on maternity leave''"
After the show - animals and all - Rockettes hit ice baths and cool down with physical trainers to work out the kinks from 90-minutes of high-flying, frenetic, crowd-pleasing action. Dancers avoid blisters - the arch enemies of high-flying hot-steppers - with a regular routine of taping and therapy.
Between shows, Lents reaches for turkey on toast, while Laroche goes for the Elvis special - a peanut butter and banana sandwich. During shows Rockettes might reach for water or Gatorade; Laroche for blue - "either blue or purples" and Lents for red.
Both reach for fruit for quick energy. "We're athletes, we have to fuel ourselves," Lents said.
Despite the constant physical pounding and four-show days, Lents and Laroche say that the joy from crowds seeing the show makes every minute of the work worthwhile.
"A lot of times, in the audiences, you'll hear the kids oooh, aaahing," Lents said. Laroche echoes that, saying she loves interacting with audiences in her rag doll costume during the "Santa's Workshop" number.
"It's just so much fun. The kids really do light up," Laroche said.
"The Radio City Christmas Spectacular" opens at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11 at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers. Prices range from $39 to $125. For groups of twenty or more, call Lois Soscia at 239-489-3033, x3122. Season tickets to the Barbara B. Mann's Broadway series range from $136 to $398. For more information or for tickets, call 239-481-4849 or online at bbmannpah.com.