Encores! Celebrates Twenty Years With On Your Toes
By Steven Suskin
City Center Encores! ends its 20th season with a bright and flavorful production of Rodgers and Hart's 1936 musical, On Your Toes. Guest conductor Rob Fisher—the organization's music director for its first twelve years—has returned for the occasion, and it is Rodgers' music and Hans Spialek's orchestration that buoy the evening.
On Your Toes presents two major obstacles for concert productions of the type Encores! has so successfully developed, namely a twelve-minute ballet in the first act and a culminating eighteen-minute ballet in the second. With a limited rehearsal period—in this case nine days, with an additional four for the two stars to work on the big ballet—and with limited floor space due to the onstage orchestra, full-scale ballets are tough to stage, rehearse and polish, especially when one of the ballets in question, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," is one of the earliest and most durable American ballets and remains in the popular repertory. (It was performed by the New York City Ballet just last Thursday.)
Even so, Encores!—which has just won a New York Drama Critics' Circle citation celebrating its first twenty years—and director/choreographer Warren Carlyle (Finian's Rainbow, Chaplin) have managed to pull together an On Your Toes that in some ways compares favorably to the show's Tony Award-winning 1983 revival.
Irina Dvorovenko, the Kiev-born ballerina who joined the American Ballet Theatre in 1996, takes top honors as Russian ballerina Vera Baronova. She dances well, naturally enough, but also has a charming way with comedy (albeit with a thick accent). Shonn Wiley (My Vaudeville Man) undertakes the Ray Bolger role as the hoofer-turned-college professor who unaccountably finds himself on his toes in the two ballets. Wiley excels in the hoofing component, although on opening night—after that brief rehearsal period—he did not yet demonstrate the level of musical comedy charm that the role calls for.
Christine Baranski and Walter Bobbie provide tremendous assists as the rich American backer and the ballet director, slathering on comedy with twinkles in their eyes. They also score with two songs each and some old-fashioned hoofing. The evening gets off to a lightning start with the one-scene-only appearance of Karen Ziemba, Randy Skinner and teenager Dalton Harrod charming their way through "Two-a-Day for Keith." Kelli Barrett plays the girl friend Frankie, a role that is understandably overpowered by ballerina Vera; Jeremy Cohen is the conceited jazz composer, presumably patterned after G. Gershwin, and City Ballet's Joaquin De Luz plays the jealous ballet star and is impressive in the first act "La Princess Zenobia" ballet.
Most surprising among the evening's pleasures was the performance of the title song. This number, with about ten dance variations appended to the song proper, seemed to go on endlessly in the 1983 revival. Here, Carlyle has devised—to the original music—what is in effect a challenge dance between the sixteen "Broadway" dancers and the eight ballet dancers. The number, thus, build and builds to rousing effect.
On Your Toes is not a modern musical comedy, as is evident by the sometimes sketchy dialogue and the lack of book-motivated songs. It was, actually, an important stepping stone. George Abbott, who had theretofore been known as a director/author of comedy and farce, started working with Rodgers & Hart in 1935. By the time they reached Pal Joey in 1940—their fourth musical in five years—they had laid the pattern for what we now call the well-made Abbott musical comedy, other examples of which include On the Town, Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game and Fiorello!
On Your Toes was the first step, and it was built around an intriguing notion. Dance at the time was used in musicals mostly as ornamentation and to extend song routines. After a long and mostly inactive spell in Hollywood, Rodgers and Hart returned with a rejected idea for a Fred Astaire movie. Hart's agent, who had signed up a group of Russian emigres, suggested that they add one of them to the mix: a choreographer named George Balanchine. With Balanchine on board, the book and score were literally built around the ballets which end each act. (Strains of "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" are heard throughout, as one of the characters is supposedly composing it.)
As a result of this, the rest of the score is to some extent compromised. Broadway songwriters usually have space for fifteen or more songs to develop their plot. With thirty minutes of ballet music, plus another twenty between the dance routines and the overture, there was room for only nine songs. Rodgers and Hart made the most of it, though, with such charmers as "The Three B's," "It's Got to Be Love," "The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye, "Glad to Be Unhappy" and the show's biggest and most enduring hit, "There's a Small Hotel."
As for "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," Encores! uses Balanchine's choreography. Not his original 1936 choreography, as that is considered lost; this is the version created by Balanchine in 1968 for the New York City Ballet, licensed from his estate and restaged by Susan Pilarre. And for those interested in such things, let us point out that while the ballets in most Rodgers musicals, including Oklahoma!, Carousel and The King and I, were devised by talented arrangers, "Slaughter" (and "La Princess Zenobia") were both composed, note-for-note, by Rodgers himself.
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