On Your Toes
But first, the plot - such as it is. Junior, a former child vaudeville hoofer turned college music professor, has two outstanding students in his class. The first is Frankie, a girl who is rather enamored of him, and it might just be mutual. (That nobody bats an eye at a teacher/student romance is your first clue as to just how dated this story is.) The second is Sidney, a composer who has just composed the jazz ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." Junior wants to get "Slaughter" performed by the visiting Russian Ballet - and, conveniently, Frankie knows Peggy Porterfield, the American who manages the company. Peggy, in turn, tries to convince Sergei, the company's artistic director, to do the show. Throw in a temperamental Russian ballerina, Vera, having an on-again-off-again love affair with the principal dancer, and that's pretty much it. There isn't much chance that the Russian Ballet won't perform "Slaughter" - it would be a pretty anticlimactic show if they didn't - and there's also not much chance one of the characters will actually murder another, as set up by a last-minute plot complication.
So the show has its work cut out for it, in terms of keeping the audience engaged in the goings-on as the backstage machinations work their way inexorably forward. And this is where the ensemble outshines most of the named characters. Many of the individual songs and duets achieve, at most, light humor or emotional sweetness, but, for the most part, there's still the impression that they're just filling time until the show gets to the dance numbers.
Not that the humor and sweetness are a waste of time. We're still talking about Rodgers and Hart here. The music is lovely and the lyrics are smart. It just doesn't feel like one hit song after another. The leads in the cast - or, at least, the two names above the title on the press release - are Stefanie Powers as Peggy and Dan Butler as Sergei. Both have serviceable but not extraordinary singing voices, which, unfortunately, sometimes grate when combined. Powers enunciates her lyrics very clearly; she doesn't lose any of Hart's witty lines, but her delivery comes off a bit too deliberate. Butler's true forte is the book scenes. Although his Russian accent comes and goes, his "Nyever" is pretty darned funny, and he manages to keep hold of Sergei's softer side as well. The often delightful Beth Malone is a tad implausible as innocent student Frankie. Her huge voice and boyish haircut just don't scream "ingenue." That said, her second act "Glad to Be Unhappy" is, hands-down, the show's vocal high point.
Jeffry Denman is solidly believable as the well-meaning, although socially inept, Junior. He taps with enough light grace that it's easy to accept Junior's vaudeville past. But when Junior finds himself dancing the male lead in "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," he is simply out-danced by the stellar ensemble. At the very end of the piece, he is called upon to dance quite frantically - there's a lot of frantic, and not much dance. Luckily, he's partnered with Yvette Tucker, who stands out like a lead dancer should. Tucker also scores in her book scenes; she embraces the role of Vera with gusto, and, whether she is angry at her boyfriend, seducing someone else, or leading her classical troupe into the new world of jazz ballet, Tucker's Vera doesn't do anything halfway.
Which brings us back to the dance ensemble. There are three big ensemble numbers in the show, and they are all terrific. Even with its flaws, there is something undeniably electric about seeing "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" performed by a quality ensemble, backed by an 18-piece band (under the always-spiffy musical direction of Gerald Sternbach), in a less-than-600-seat venue like UCLA's Freud Playhouse. It's something you might not have thought Reprise! could pull off - but they certainly do.
On Your Toes plays through August 26 at Freud Playhouse at UCLA. For tickets, call (310) 825-2101 or visit www.reprise.org.
Reprise! Broadway's Best - Jason Alexander, Artistic Director; Jim Gardia, Producing Director; Danny Feldman, Managing Director - presents On Your Toes. Music by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Lorenz Hart; Book by Rodgers & Hart and George Abbott. Scenic and Lighting Design Brett Banakis; Costume Design Shon LeBlanc; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Orchestrations Hans Spialek; Associate Music Director Michael Farrell; Music Coordinator Joe Soldo; Technical Director Chris Batstone; Casting Director Julia Flores; Production Stage Manager Lindsay Martens; Press Representative David Elzer/DEMAND PR; Production Coordinator Rob Rudolph; Director of Development Christine Bernardi; Marketing TMG - The Marketing Group. Music Direction by Gerald Sternbach; Choreographed by Lee Martino; Directed by Dan Mojica.