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A CurtainUp Review
Encores! On Your Toes
By Elyse Sommer
This is exactly the kind of show that embodies what Encores! is all about. Though the many Broadway transfers of the brief, script in hand concert presentations have inevitably raised the "will it or won't it seed a Broadway production"question, shades of Cabaret and Gypsy, the real mission is to revisit a chapter in musical theater history.
In the case of On Your Toes, that mission is to give audiences an entertaining perspective on the 1936 original's place between vaudeville and Zigfeld Follies type shows and the fully matured musical that allowed represented by Oklahoma. Though geared to the light entertainment hungry tastes of Depression era audiences, On Your Toes, was ground breaking not only in its marriage of jazz and ballet dancing, but in allowing a dancing scene to be more than an extended snippet but to go on for half an hour or more.
The template used by director/choreographer Warren Carlyle for the current Encores! production is the 1983 revival staged by 95-year-old George Abbot. This further adds to this musical's play in the continuing evolution of musical theater. While the musical that organically integrated book and music was firmly established by then, the more recent trend to very dark themed musicals with heavily dissonant scores had yet to evolve. Who would have thought that actors could sing about chronic depression (Next to Normal) or Altzheimer's (The Memory Show)?
And so, while On Your Toes may not have the kind of legs to carry it to yet another Broadway revival, it has plenty of gorgeous and amazingly do-anything legs to make it a treat for anyone who nabbed a ticket for one of its all too limited run. The reason for its must-see pleasures are not from its light as a breeze story or even the songs. Lorenz Hart's lyrics are sexy and full of witty innuendos (Example: "Mother Begged Me 'don’t Drink With Any Guy,'/so I Was Made On Lemonade." from "The Heart is Quicker than the Eye). But there's really only one big breakout number, "There's a Small Hotel, " and that in the sort of easy-over conversational style that was once par for the course.
The plot revolves around Phil (Junior)Dolan (Shonn Wiley--Dalton Harrod as his younger persona), member of a famous vaudeville family turned music professor and his relationship with two talented students, Frankie Frayne (Kelli Barrett) and Sidney Cohn (Jeremy Cohen). Junior is more smitten with Frankie than the song she's written and sold, but in Sidney's case he's in love with the jazz ballet he's written which is, of course, the sensational "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." While Frankie is jealous of Junior's enthusiasm for Sid's work, she loves him enoug to use her connection to wealthy ballet patron Porterfield , who in turn persuades the classical tradition bound Sergei Alexandrovich (Walter Bobbie) director of the Russian Ballet, to have his company stage Cohn's jazz ballet.
Rogers, Hart and Abbott cooked this thin on substance stew it up as a sort of stock pot into which to toss the production numbers, with emphasis on the dancing. That includes not just the terrific comic send-up of classical ballet at the first act finale and the jazzy "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" finale that turns the Russian classical ballerina into a gangster's moll but the sensational title number in which the jazz and ballet get together to strut their stuff. Splendid as the two big end-of-act ballets were, for me, and judging from the cheers at the performance I attended, this was the standout production number of the current On Your Toes.
The casting for this revival couldn't have been better. Heading the list of pleasures to be had from the performers is of course the chance to see Baranski live on stage (and yes, hoofing and singing) and seeing prima ballerina Dvorovenko's make an impressive musical theater debut.
There's also director Walter Bobbie in a rare turn in front of the curtain turning out to be one of the best singers. Joaquin DeLuz (former New York City Ballet principal dancer) is fiery both as Dvorovenko's back stage lover and partner in the two big ballets. While some old-timers might wish for a miraculous return of Ray Bolger for Junior's the hilariously inept contribution to the "Princess Zenobia Ballet," Shonn Wiley handled this difficult part with panache and was perfect as the somewhat innocent professor torn between the sweet student and the glamorous ballerina.
The Encores! orchestra helmed by Rob Fisher sounded great as usual and though perched on stage as is traditional, there was plenty of room for the dancing. Without any big Broadway bells and whistles the production segued seamlessly to the various locations. The benches of Junior's Knickerbocker University classroom were ingeniously transformed into props to showcase the talented ensemble's wondrous leaps in the "On Your Toes" number.
I can't wait for the next Encores! season and it's brand new Encores! Off-Center series focusing on Off-Broadway musicals which will launch in July with Marc Blitztein political musical The Cradle Will Rock.