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On Your Toes

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Shonn Wiley with Irina Dvorovenko.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

It's not a twinkle in the night sky—it's a supernova. The explosion of jazz, smoke, longing, and sex that ignites late in the second act of the Encores! production of On Your Toes, which is playing through Sunday at City Center, is indeed galaxy shifting. It might have a creakingly familiar title and its age may be pegged at anywhere from 45 to 77 years, but it's nonetheless the youngest, freshest, and most exuberant expression of musical theatre dance to currently be found in New York. Sure, it may be even more remarkable given the void of space that engulfs it, but that doesn't detract from its infinitely burning brilliance.

The number is, of course, Richard Rodgers's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," and the choreographer is, of course, George Balanchine. Both rocketed to prominence as a result of the show's 1936 inaugural production, which represented a landmark fusion of story and movement in the parched pre-Oklahoma! days, and helped propel the redefinition of the Broadway musical as a dance and a storytelling medium. But despite nearly eight decades of history, and countless rethinkings and resuscitations, the scene invigorates yet today because it's deft, committed, and above all unique.

Oh so simple is its tale of a nightclub hoofer's ill-fated romance with a luscious strip-tease artist, which courses through a confrontation with a gun-bearing tough that ends with two people dead. Balanchine, however, viewed nothing elementary about the underlying attitudes or the feelings. Sensuality is invoked first by the taut, angled calves and the wavy shoulders of the ensemble parading through the club, then finds even fuller form as the hoofer and his lady undertake their dalliances. There's humor, too, as waiters with mops clean up a strangely man-sized mess, and two waiters wordlessly reflect on the absurdity surrounding them. Then when the romance has run its bloody gauntlet, the pain of the survivor—if that's even the proper term—is palpable as delivered through a frenetically organized mess of anguished footwork.

Every emotion sizzles, every plot point pops, and the aggregative complexities will have you leaning forward into this world where anything really can happen. Susan Pilarre has so robustly recreated Balanchine's late-day version of his piece (his original charts have been lost; this is a 1968 revamp that was also used in the 1983 Broadway revival) that it defies and transcends time and expectations. So successfully does it do so, in fact, that within its glorious 15-minute expanse you will find not a single speck of dust.

Unfortunately, the same thing may not be said of the rest of this On Your Toes. Everything else in this lurching evening is directed and choreographed (by Warren Carlyle) and performed as if to repudiate the timelessness that "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" so effortlessly projects.

Christine Baranski with Walter Bobbie.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

One cannot exactly blame David Ives's "concert adaptation" of the book that Rodgers and his lyricist Lorenz Hart wrote with George Abbott, since, as bleated here, it barely defines a through line. There's a bit of a matter made of Junior Dolan (Shonn Wiley), the son of a prominent vaudeville family who's become a music teacher, romancing one of his students, Frankie (Kelli Barrett). And of Junior proposing the idea an innovative "jazz ballet" written by another student, to a prominent but financially troubled Russian troupe managed by impresario Sergei Alexandrovitch (Walter Bobbie) and financed by the glittery Peggy Porterfield (Christine Baranski). And of the tempestuous relationship between the company's premiere danseuse, Vera (Irina Dvorovenko), and her onstage-and-off partner, Konstantine (Joaquin De Luz), that injects minimal friction into the Junior-Frankie pairing.

But, as was so often true of musicals of the 1930s and earlier, the appearance of any drama is incidental at best and accidental at worst. What fueled this show, like so many others, was its score and its stars (onstage as well as off). Rodgers and Hart were masters of the then-form, true, and you can sense them bridging their incomparable earlier pop to the latter-day theatre music that would soon symbolize Rodgers's collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II. But though there's no shortage of catchy and/or pretty tunes—including the especially lovely "There's a Small Hotel," "Glad to Be Unhappy," and "Quiet Night"—the song stack doesn't quite align with Rodgers and Hart at their best (as in Babes in Arms, which was to premiere in 1937), even as sumptuously orchestrated by Hans Spialek and played by the Encores! Orchestra under Rob Fisher's capable baton.

As for the actors—well, they're doing their best. But Junior cries out for an inventive, rubber-limbed comedian along the likes of Ray Bolger (who created the part), and Wiley, though clearly skilled in all the musical arts, is too serious, reserved, and tentative to extract any notable comic or kinetic energy from his role. Barrett sings attractively enough, but finds no spark in Frankie; Bobbie is flat and unappealing as Sergei. Dvorovenko and De Luz are gifted and experienced ballet dancers who convey considerable nuances of feeling in that arena, but are rather more mechanical in their line readings. Only Baranski is an electric match of part and personality, finding the glamor and martini-dry wit of the slyly manipulative, yet deceptively passionate, Peggy; she also proves, with one late line, that she is the only thing other than dance that can stop the hardly-get-started proceedings.

Carlyle unquestionably faces the most daunting challenge, true, having to construct everything else around Balanchine. But one is nonetheless left with the impression that he could do more. The spoken scenes are ploddingly paced, with little to no ear for comedy, but even the numbers he floods with motion almost completely fail to move. The delightful title song explores a collision of classical ballet and contemporary tap, but Carlyle's take is breathtakingly unimaginative and visually stagnant. And the climactic first-act ballet, "La Princesse Zenobia," a humorless parody of "Scheherazade" as rendered here, plods on endlessly, and is packed only with time-tested, and time-scarred, concepts utterly bereft of buoyancy.

It might be impossible to not love "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" under these circumstances, but it justifies itself anyway through means objective as well as relative. It cajoles and captivates not just because it can, but because the man who devised it knew that it had to. Forget about it elevating this otherwise forgettable On Your Toes, which it undeniably does: It's more instructive about theatre, in terms of what we've lost and ought to strive to regain, than anything else you're likely to see in 2013.

Encores! Rodgers & Hart's On Your Toes
Through May 12
New York City Center's Mainstage, 131 W. 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenue
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