Friday, May 10, 2013

Encores! Presents On Your Toes

“Can a good man love two women at the same time?”

“Only if he’s very good.”

Metropolitan-area theater buffs have no greater gift than the recurring Encores! series at New York City Center.  Under the artistic direction of Jack Viertel and the musicianship of conductor Rob Berman, Encores! recreates lost Broadway musicals, resurrecting the original book and orchestrations.  If you are interested in Broadway musicals – and you know who you are – Encores! is essential.

The third and final production of this, their 20th season, is On Your Toes, with music by Richard Rogers (1902-1979) and lyrics by Lorenz Hart (1895-1943).  It is, in many ways, an atypical show for the Encores! team – unlike most musicals which rely upon dialog or lyrics to tell the story, On Your Toes delivers much of the narrative through dance.  To meet that challenge, director and choreographer Warren Carlyle has altered the usual stage-reading format and delivered a fully-rendered, toe-tapping Broadway show.  The effect is stunning.

On Your Toes will run for only seven performances, from May 8th through the 12th.  On Your Toes is guest-conducted by Encores! founding music director Rob Fisher and the "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet, originally choreographed by George Balanchine (1904-1983) is staged by Susan Pilarre, who served as a Ballet Mistress of the show's 1983 Broadway Revival.

The story is simple: Phil Dolan (the radiant Dalton Harrod playing him young, and Shonn Wiley playing him as an adult) is a third generation vaudeville hoofer.  He is sent to school and eventually becomes a music professor.  Through a series of musical-comedy riffs, he ends us presenting his jazz ballet, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, under the auspices of the prestigious, conservative Russian Ballet, romancing both a student (Kelli Barrett) and a temperamental Russian ballerina (Irina Dvorovenko) along the way.  We also get gangsters, ballet-managing socialites and peppy school kids eager to make it in show business.

As is often the case in pop musicals, one of the core conceits is “High Culture” and “Popular Culture” colliding, with Pop Culture proving to be of great value after all.  This was a frequent trope during the Great Depression, when our national popular culture was actually viable, intelligent, energetic, optimistic and communal.  Sadly, the whole idea would be preposterous in this, the final decades of our once thriving culture.

One Your Toes had an interesting gestation in that it was originally intended as a film vehicle for the incandescent Fred Astaire (1899-1987), who rejected the idea.  Astaire thought the convergence of popular dance and ballet too highbrow for film audiences, and also thought that the dowdy professor would be too great a change in his screen image.  Rogers and Hart quickly converted the idea to a Broadway show, where it starred Ray Bolger (1904-1987) in 1936 – giving him a great success. 

What can be said about the Encores! production of On Your Toes other than it is a sheer distillation of joy?  From its opening number – the energetic Two-a-Day For Keith (where Dalton Harrod, who unfortunately disappears for the rest of the show shines magnificently), to the closing Slaughter on Tenth Avenue ballet (which is filled with both beautiful dance and knock-about comedy), the show is a consistent delight.  Never has Encores! dared so extensive an undertaking; this is a Broadway show in all-but-name.

The cast is uniformly excellent.  Christine Baranski, as socialite and ballet manager Polly Porterfield, is a hoot, adding a bit of New York sophistication and savvy to a showy, supporting part.  Barrett, as girlfriend Frankie Frayne, has a wonderful voice and terrific style – one can only hope that one day an entire show will be built around her.  Irina Dvorovenko as spoiled ballerina Vera Baronova has all the choice lines, and speaks them with such relish I often thought she were tasting them.  Joaquín De Luz, as the lead ballet dancer and jealous rival, dances beautifully and plays comedy with a sure hand – he is a great treat.  Perhaps the one weak link in the cast was Shonn Wiley as the adult Dolan – he is a terrific comic actor, a good dance and adequate singer; one only wishes someone more dynamic took the lead.

If at all possible, do not miss One Your Toes.

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