The old days, when New York's popular "Encores!" series at the City Center was dedicated to staging concert versions of old musicals worthy of a second look, are a thing of the past. By the time each seven-show run opens now, the scripts have already been discarded, the musicians have memorized the arrangements, and the singers and dancers are so polished that they could open on Broadway with the raising of a conductor's baton. So it was with the previous "Encores!" production this season, a fabulous and perfect reincarnation of Fiorello! And so it is again with the season's series closer, a vastly entertaining return to the ballet world of On Your Toes.
This is the Rodgers and Hart musical about a tap dancing whiz named Junior Doldan, raised in a family of vaudeville entertainers who has retired from show business to a nobler position as music professor at a university in upstate New York, and a dazzling Russian prima ballerina named Vera Barnova, who join forces to premiere one of his music student's compositions, a jazz ballet, in the classical repertoire of a Russian ballet company ruled by a domineering maestro named Sergei Alexandrovitch, who opposes the entire idea. But Sergei was once married to Vera (three times, in fact) and still weakens in her imperial presence, as well as that of the company's powerful manager and chief financial investor, the society dame Peggy Porterfield (played in this production by a campy Christine Baranski). The show is mainly an excuse to introduce a lot of wonderful Rodgers and Hart songs composed by Junior's pupils ("There's a Small Hotel", "Quiet Night", "Too Good for the Average Man", "Glad to be Unhappy") and showcase the Terpsichorean talents of two stars from opposite sides of the dance world. The original 1936 production, under the regal guidance of ballet choreographer George Balanchine and the tough razzmatazz of director George Abbott, also combined the talents of lanky Ray Bolger (before he wowed the world three years later as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz) and the sexy, illustrious Russian ballet star Tamara Geva (who was, ironically the first wife of Balanchine, who married her when she was 14). Sergei, the irascible émigré Russian ballet master, was played by Monty Woolley. The show captivated critics and audiences alike and ran for 315 performances. It was revived, unsuccessfully, in 1954, with the libidinous MGM dancer Bobby Van as Junior, Elaine Stritch as Peggy Porterfield, and in the role of Vera, another of Balanchine's ex-wives, glamorous ballet superstar Vera Zorina. History did not repeat itself. An inexplicable flop, it closed after 64 performances, but that is the production I would have most wanted to see. Again resuscitated in 1983 with international ballerina Natalia Markarova and a limp Junior played by a wooden and charmless dancer named Lara Teeter, it ran for an amazing 505 performances. I saw it, and I still don't understand it.
On Your Toes combined burlesque and ballet to the delight of audiences starved for post-Depression entertainment. The book was weak and forgettable. The plot is non-existent. Yet it overjoyed musical comedy mavens royally in 1936, and it still does. Despite its many flaws, it is still best remembered for the jazz ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue", which, oddly enough, is the most disappointing thing in the "Encores!" production. Choreographer Susan Pilarre, required by the George Balanchine Trust to adhere to the original Balanchine movements, does his best to bring some energy to the ballet, but compared to the fabulous Gene Kelly-Vera-Ellen production number in the MGM Rodgers and Hart biopic Words and Music or the many reincarnations in the repertoire of the New York City Ballet, I'm afraid this is a "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" with tired blood. It's partially the fault of a lackluster leading man, Shonn Wiley, whose Junior is no Ray Bolger, no Bobby Van, and -- most assuredly -- no Gene Kelly. He fares much better doing a lovely soft shoe with Christine Baranski on "The Heart is Quicker Than the Eye".
The rest of the cast is superb. Walter Bobbie, an "Encores!" veteran who for years has been living off his success as the director of the long-running Broadway revival of Chicago, returns to acting with great humor and a perfect Russian accent as the cantankerous dance taskmaster Sergei Alexandrovitch. Karen Ziemba, Randy Skinner and Dalton Harrod open the show with a stunning tribute to vaudeville called "Two-a-Day For Keith, Three-a-Day for Loew," and ingénue soprano Kelli Barrett sweetly embellishes "There's a Small Hotel". For the role of Vera, the Russian prima ballerina, you need more than a hoofer who can walk on point, and this production has a great one in the spectacular Irina Dvorovenko. She has legs for days and she can also sing and act with humor and aplomb. She is beautifully matched by another great dancer, Joaquin De Luz, as the ballet company's jealous and temperamental leading dancer, Konstantine Morrosine. In the first-act "Princess Zenobia" ballet, a spoof of the kind of pretentious Russian ballets that did not travel well from Moscow to Broadway, the two stars play tricks on each other, trying to hide their mutual lust, while Junior Dolan wrecks the entire ballet disguised as a Nubian slave while Konstantine tries to drive him off the stage. Stripped almost bare, Mr. De Luz is carnal, erotic and hilarious. He stops the show.
Other highlights that have held up well since 1936 are, of course, the witty and priceless Lorenz Hart lyrics. On the rousing title tune, "On Your Toes" (the best production number in the show, flawlessly choreographed by Warren Carlyle), the divisive worlds of ballet and Tin Pan Alley come together brilliantly with two sets of dancers throwing themselves all over the stage in wild abandon singing "They climb the clouds/To come through with airmail/The dancing crowds/Look up to some rare male... Like that Astaire male". And who else but Larry Hart could get away with:
Psychoanalysts are all the whirl.
Rich men pay them all they can.
Waking up to find that he's a girl
Is too good for the average man.
It doesn't get much better than this, and there's more of that in On Your Toes.