Of all the hit Rodgers and Hart shows, only Pal Joey and On Your Toes—well, maybe A Connecticut Yankee—seem to be revivable. We know dozens of the songs from Jumbo, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, By Jupiter and the rest, but we don’t know the shows, unless we think we can infer Babes in Arms from the Mickey and Judy movie version (which—thank you, M-G-M—managed to omit most of the sublime score, including “My Funny Valentine”).
Why has On Your Toes survived? Apart from the terrible movie from 1939, three years after the show, there was a Broadway revival in 1954 (a flop), and another one in 1983 (a hit, with Natalia Makarova as the Russian prima. Well, she was a Russian prima). And now the City Center’s Encores! series has unleashed it again, and we can confirm that it’s definitely not the dopey plot that keeps it turning up again and again—the backstage and on-stage antics of a Ballets Russes-like company don’t constitute a plot. Nor can the ups and downs of a pallid romance between an ex-Vaudeville hoofer and a sweet young thing of a wannabe songwriter hold your attention longer that it takes the two of them to sing the show’s biggest hit, “There’s a Small Hotel.”
No, the answer has to be the dance element. On Your Toes is famous for being the first Broadway musical not only filled with dance but centered on dance—for being about dance. And for being George Balanchine’s first show (there would be three more) with Rodgers and Hart, for which Rodgers wrote his finest orchestral piece, the climactic “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” ballet, on which everything hinges. In 1968, Balanchine revived it for City Ballet—with Suzanne Farrell as the stripper and Arthur Mitchell as the hoofer—and we think of it now as a stand-alone ballet. (In just the last two weeks, it’s been performed at City Ballet and Miami City Ballet.)
So although the dancing was hardly mentioned in Brooks Atkinson’s favorable Times review of the original (he was all about the songs and the singers), the Encores! staging is all about the dance—a far cry from the early Encores! productions, when a bunch of singers sat on stools reading their lines and once in a while got up and moved. This version is bustling, polished, ambitious—are the powers that be hoping for a move to Broadway? Their production of Chicago, transferred in 1996, is still running!
Here’s what worked. The casting of the ABT ballerina Irina Dvorovenko (who’s about to retire) as the campy-vampy Vera Baronova. Dvorovenko’s affectations and calculated mannerisms have made it almost impossible for me to watch her in classical roles, but here she was funny, charming, even sexy—and no more over-the-top than the role requires. Another real-life ballet star, Joaquin De Luz, gave us a convincingly preening and hammy danseur noble in the grip of murderous Slavic jealousy. Christine Baranski sang the clever “The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye” with the vocal wit of a Broadway star of the period. The orchestra, under Rob Fisher, made hay out of Hans Spialek’s terrific 1936 orchestrations. And the director/choreographer Warren Carlyle scored a tremendous hit with his extended, exuberant, tumultuous setting of the title song, as the rush of ballet dancers and swing dancers, both competing and teaming up, peaked again and again. A real show-stopper—the audience was in bliss.
Alas, most of Carlyle’s choreography was not up to this level. His substitution for Balanchine’s first-act closer, the brilliant parody of Scheherazade known as the “Princess Zenobia” ballet, was thin and formulaic; surely he could have built on what the film shows us of Balanchine’s intentions. So we miss the wonderful moment when the five blacked-up slaves throw off their upper garments, and one of them (the hero, of course) reveals his assertively white chest. Did they think the original was politically incorrect? Carlyle’s stuff for the music school kids in “The Three B’s” and “It’s Got to Be Love” was sub-generic. Yet he performed something of a miracle getting this complicated and sometimes confusing mix of a musical into such smooth shape in so abbreviated a rehearsal period—while coming up with his thrilling “On Your Toes” number. Talk about grace under pressure!
Luckily, no one tampered with “Slaughter” itself. It was badly cramped on the City Center stage, half of which was occupied by the orchestra, but Susan Pilarre’s staging was accurate and honest, reflecting the show version rather than the 1968 ballet version. Alas, her hoofer, the very young Shonn Wiley—although he’s appealing, worked valiantly and has the moves—doesn’t as yet have the stage charisma of a star. And this was a Ray Bolger role! Dvorovenko let herself rip, but she couldn’t rip for two.
The oddest aspect of the production was to be found in the opening credits. No mention of Balanchine; “Directed and Choreographed by Warren Carlyle.” So much for “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” And yet, tucked away pages later, there’s the standard nod to the Balanchine Trust and a mention of Pilarre. It’s a puzzlement.