05/09/2013 03:06 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2013

First Nighter: City Center's Encores! Series On Your Toes Lives Up to Its Name

The single most spectacular dance number on view at the moment -- and it won't be for long; get there fast -- erupts in the second act of On Your Toes, the current Encores! series entry at City Center. Those who know the show may already have guessed it's the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart-George Abbott musical's famous Slaughter on Tenth Avenue ballet.

That's the iconic dance originally staged by George Balanchine in 1936 and recreated by him for the New York City Ballet in 1968 and again for the 1983 revival of the musical comedy.

Yes, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is a good guess but wrong. The biggest ovation-getter of the welcome event is the revival director-choreographer Warren Carlyle's staging of the tuner's title number. In it a troupe of tappers -- meant to represent music students whom protagonist Phil Dolan III (Shonn Wiley) is guiding -- are joined by eight ballet dancers who've been invited to the classroom.

Dreamed up for the 1983 version by the producer and musical director John Mauceri, it could be called a dance-off between the two factions. Nevertheless, it finishes as a riotous blend that builds and builds until it seems it can build no more and then does. It's one of those theatrical concoctions that has a spectator's jaw dropping by increments and only my concern for the participants' health keeps me from wishing it had lasted a couple of hours longer -- or was still unfolding.

This isn't to say that Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, restaged by one-time Balanchine dancer and now New York City Ballet teacher Susan Pilarre, isn't an eye-popper. The haunting themes Rodgers poured out for it and were then so brilliantly orchestrated by Hans Spialek for the 1936 opus maintain their heart-stopping, bass-oboe-inclusive power, certainly as conducted with all shifting tempi honored by Rob Fisher.

Danced originally by Ray Bolger and Tamara Geva, who was long divorced from Balanchine but ready to work for him, it remains the melodramatic tale of a honky-tonk Strip Tease Girl dominated by her boss who becomes attracted to a "Hoofer" -- with unfortunate results for all three. Here, Irina Dvorovenko, playing fiery ballerina Vera Baronova, turns the lines of her stunning body into a living Slinky, whereas the generally appealing Wiley as her persistent suitor doesn't quite have the street savoir faire to match.

But wait, there's more good news. La Princesse Zenobia, Balanchine's spoof of Ballets Russes' Scheherazade exotica that ends the first act with genuine laughs -- especially for balletomanes with long memories -- gets many of its yuks thanks to Wiley. His clowning as a last-minute substitute dancing slave fulfills Carlyle's requirements. Dvorovenko is hilariously imperious as the princess in question.

The embarrassment of terpsichorean riches begins with the On Your Toes kick-off involving the young Phil (Dalton Harrod) tapping like gangbusters through the routine that he and parents Phil Dolan II (Randy Skinner, a top-notch tapper and choreographer in his own right) and Lil Dolan (the always skillful Karen Ziemba) have turned into vaudeville's most successful act. The way the three go at it leaves no doubt why the Dolans are where they are.

So, yes, this is an imposing dance extravaganza, but never forget this is a Rodgers and Hart musical first and foremost, at least that's what audiences expected -- and what they got -- at a time when the collaborators were at the peak of their game.

But in 2013 we've reached a point when musicals don't have break-out tunes, when dance bands across the land can't wait to intro ditties from the newest show, when everyone listening to the radio knows Broadway's latest. Now it's a jolt to be reminded that There's a Small Hotel, Glad to Be Unhappy and It's Got To Be Love were written for the hot occasion.

Lesser-known but every bit as mesmerizing for the way Hart lavished words on Rodgers's melodies are the sultry Quiet Night (originally a 2/4 dance number), the acerbic comedy numbers The Heart is Quicker Than the Eye and Too Good for the Average Man, and the irresistible title item.

With all the song and dance and song-and-dance material gloriously at hand, opportunities abound for the God-given-talented, and this On Your Toes abounds with them. To start, there's Dvorovenko, who's as on her toes with the comic moments (and in costume consultant Amy Clark's filmy togs) as she is on her actual toes. And there's the likable Wiley, who hoofs and spoofs admirably.

Impossible to overestimate is the seasoned agility brought to the gaiety by Christine Baranski as determined arts patron Peggy Porterfield and Walter Bobbie as impresario Sergei Alexandrovitch. She's so familiar now for non-singing television assignments like her current The Good Wife that her musical comedy expertise is easily overlooked. It shouldn't be. And what about the great Walter Bobbie, whose accomplishments as a director (and former Encores! artistic director) overshadow his on-stage acumen? Whatever he does in front of the footlights is always a stitch.

Then count in Kelli Barrett as Phil's student and love interest(!) Frankie Frayne, Joaquin De Luz as narcissistic premier danseur Konstantine Morrosine and Jeremy Cohen as Sidney Cohn, the purported composer of the "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" jazz ballet. They're all, as the Hart lyric goes, "top of the crop."

The story this troupe's caught up in is something else again. Even librettist Abbott, one of the Great White Way's savviest creators ever, is on record as calling it "lousy." What goes on as an excuse for the sung and danced music? Dolan, having left vaudeville (or did it leave him?), believes student Cohn's score deserves Alexandrovitch's producing attention and while courting the great man, is seduced by rapacious Vera and menacingly resented by her lover Konstantine. Aside from knowing this upsets Frankie for a few minutes, nothing more need by disclosed.

No one's going to On Your Toes for the plot. Everyone should be going for everything else.