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 May 10, 2013

On Your Toes: What The Black Crook Wrought

All musicals descend from The Black Crook, but On Your Toes is truly its great-great grandson.

You may have heard that in 1866 Our First Official Musical came into the world, “half improvised and half compromised,” to quote Ben Franklin in 1776. A ballet troupe had been hired to perform at the New York Academy of Music, but the place burned down just before the troupe was to open. So the dancers went to nearby Niblo’s Garden to see if they could perform there. The manager already had a melodrama booked, but felt bad for the dancers; he told them that they could perform in between scenes. The hybrid show went over beautifully, and soon producers were thinking that dance interspersed with dialogue scenes might make for fine entertainment. Maybe we could even add a few songs …

Fast forward 70 years, when Rodgers and Hart, the top composing team of its day – along with George Abbott, Broadway’s current pre-eminent writer-director – wanted to work with up-and-coming choreographer George Balanchine. Their 1936 musical On Your Toes would merge dance, dialogue and songs, too, and would arguably become the most high-brow musical ever produced.

Granted, the show didn’t wind up as clumsy as The Black Crook, but, to be frank, what the distinguished team created wasn’t the very model of a major modern musical.

As much fun as the current Encores! mounting of On Your Toes is, we still see that we’re seven years away from the far more integrated Oklahoma! that Rodgers would forge with new partner Hammerstein. Of On Your Toes’ eleven musical pieces, six are diagetic, starting with the two ballets, of course: “La Princesse Zenobia,” a Scheherazade parody, and “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” the masterpiece that’s had a life of its own. (“Ballets” is the term of choice, although I prefer to call them “silent musicals.”)

The first of the other four diagetics starts as soon as the curtain goes up: “Two-a-Day for Keith,” the signature vaudeville number for the Dolan Family. The other three – “It’s Got to Be Love,” “Quiet Night” and “On Your Toes” -- are classroom exercises performed in the schoolroom in which Junior Dolan, now 15 years older, makes his living.

Diagetic or not, the score’s marvelous. Five years before Ira Gershwin was naming Russian composers in “Tschaikowsky” in Lady in the Dark, Hart beat him to it by citing plenty of them and other classical masters in “The Three B’s.” We have the standards “Glad to Be Unhappy” and “Quiet Night,” not to mention one song that’s deservedly plugged the most. Musical theater enthusiasts always sing it when they’re playing Monopoly and have just upgraded their property from four houses: “There’s a Small Hotel.”

And yet, how are these songs used? Junior’s prize pupil (and true love) Frankie Frayne sings “It’s Got to Be Love,” because it’s the song she’s recently written. But as soon as she’s finished her verse and chorus, Junior comes in with a completely new chorus of his own. How did he know these extra lyrics? As soon as he’s done, in come the students who’d already left for the day suddenly reappearing and knowing the words, too.

Are they the same lyrics because Hart was too lazy, drunk or incommunicado to write new ones? Rodgers must have been thrilled to write two ballets, not only because he could stretch himself artistically, but also because he wouldn’t have to locate Hart, pour coffee down his throat and make him return to work. When Hart wrote “Too Good for the Average Man,” there’s no mystery why the lyric “waking in the alcoholic ward” occurred to him.

To be sure, “Glad to be Unhappy” is a beautiful song, but one Hart lyric doesn’t quite fit the moment. “Unrequited love’s a bore,” sings Frankie, because Junior seems suddenly smitten with Vera Baronova, the prima ballerina. But Junior has loved Frankie all along, and from everything he says, he still does – so how can this love be “unrequited?” Rodgers and Hart seemed to have the Hit Parade in mind and not the show.

No song moves the action forward, but “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” does – most unconvincingly. The wheels are set in motion when ballet impresario Sergei Alexandrovich chooses Junior and not primo ballerino Konstantine Morrosine to star in the new piece. Morrosine is so angry that Sergei has chosen this mere teacher that he pays $5,000 to a hit man to kill Junior while he’s dancing.

Really? He’s that angry?

Here’s the plan he gives the hit-man: the ballet will conclude with Junior’s falling to the floor – which will prompt the audience to wildly clap and cheer and allow the murderer to shoot and kill; the titanic response will keep everyone from hearing the gun go off. And if you believe that, I’ve got two tickets to sell you for Carnival in Flanders for Saturday night.

The stage doorman overhears the plot, so during the number a dancer saunters on and gives Junior a note on a tray. Would Junior really stop to read it mid-number? But he does, and realizes that if he keeps dancing and doesn’t drop to the floor, the police will have enough time to arrest the hit man. Indeed they do, because a cop has just happened to drop into rehearsals every now and then. (Who called him? Carolyn Leigh?)

This rescue must have worked better in 1936, as well as in the 1954 and 1983 revivals – because the orchestra conductor was in the pit and Junior could look out front and flash him a high-sign to keep the orchestra playing. Here, with the Encores! orchestra behind Junior, he must turn, get the conductor’s attention and somehow convey what he wants. Clunky.

But all’s well that ends well, especially for Morrosine, who gets the girl (Vera) and not as much as a reprimand for hiring a hit man. It’s not that all is forgiven; it’s that the authors have forgotten.

You’re inclined to blame Abbott, but Rodgers and Hart co-wrote the book with him. And who knows how much adaptor David Ives is responsible? The show also has its share of wan gag lines. “I’ll think about it,” Sergei tells his patron Peggy Porterfield in response to her request. But only a couple of seconds need pass before he says, “I thought about it. No.”

Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle must have spent an inordinate amount of time on dance, not only because it’s magnificent in both its classical ballet and Broadway production numbers, but also because he didn’t notice how sloppy a move he made in the first scene. The Dolans have finished their number and are in their dressing room when they’re urged to return to take one more curtain call. They travel from stage left all the way to stage right, go off, and re-emerge right to take their call at the lip of the stage. Once they’ve finished bowing, they don’t return by the same route, but simply take a short cut by cutting across the stage and going back to the dressing room.

Another blocking problem: how many theatergoers seated in the orchestra were able to notice that the hit man was sitting above them in the grand tier in the first row in the extreme house-right seat? Carlyle didn’t find a way to let the audience know he was up there.

And then there’s the blackface issue. Now we all wish that blackface could have gone out with The Black Crook.  But On Your Toes originally used it when Junior does an understudy-to-the-rescue bit by playing a slave in “Zenobia.” Originally the joke was that he got in blackface along with the four other slaves, but didn’t know that the five of them would be required to take off their shirts. When he does, the lily-white torso is at odds with the blackface.

Carlyle avoids blackface by painting the slaves from head to toe in royal blue (with loincloths covering the essentials). But then Junior enters with his already exposed white body, save for a few blue handprints here and there. What happened? He had no time to apply all his make-up? Did he run out of blue? Who knows? (Perhaps Carlyle doesn’t, either.) But the whole idea of adding Junior in the number at the last minute is ridiculous, anyway. Wouldn’t four slaves do?

Shonn Wiley has preppie appeal as Junior, the type of guy who actually looks better in glasses and in a sleeveless sweater vest that costume consultant Amy Clark ordered for him. (She provides the students with a nice riot-of-colors palette, too.) What a solid song ‘n’ dance man Wiley is, too – both in the ballets and the numbas.

As Frankie, Kelli Barrett gives an intelligent reading to “It’s Got to Be Love,” really making it seem as if it’s the song she just finished writing; the way she delivers an occasional lyric in halting fashion shows that she’s still trying out her words, wondering if she has settled too easily for what she has chosen and needs to reassess.

Christine Baranski, playing Peggy, shows what a good straight (wo)man she can be when Vera says she’s “been faithful to one man – for two months.” The way Baranski turns to us and dryly and slightly opens her mouth gives a nice punctuation to the joke.

She’s also solid when threatening to call in her markers if Sergei doesn’t stage the ballet she wants. He’s adeptly played by Walter Bobbie, whose life irrevocably changed for the better when he directed Chicago for Encores! in 1996 and saw it move to Broadway. Bobbie is so consistent with his Russian accent that we must wonder if he’s spent most of the ensuing 17 years vacationing in a Moscow manse thanks to his Chicago money. His accent sounds no less authentic than that of Irina Dvorovenko – Vera -- who truly was born in the Ukraine.

For a ballerina – or even a stage-tested pro -- Dvorovenko has excellent comic timing. There’s a moment where she tears the score out of Junior’s hands (all the better to seduce him) with the force of King Kong ripping up a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet. We know she’s going to throw it across the stage, but she does it with the power of an all-star outfielder and makes it travel a far greater distance than we would have imagined.

Joaquín De Luz was born in Madrid, but he too does well by the Russian accent. While we’ll never know how he’d fare in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” he certainly does superbly by “La Princesse Zenobia.” (He’s very funny when he enters in that one, smiling and expecting adulation, not as the character, but as the company’s superstar.) Dvorovenko gets to prove her worth (it’s substantial) in both toe-torturing ballets. Just the stylish way she lifts and moves her leg reminds us of the elegance we miss on Broadway.

And yet, the sequence that delights the most in choreographic terms may well be the title song. In this one, we get the chance to see the ensemble dance sparklingly to up-tempo Broadway pop before turning over the stage to the ballet troupe, which impresses equally. Here’s where On Your Toes does what it set out to do: render to the classicists the things that are classic and to Broadway the things that are very Great White Way. How nice to see them live in peaceful coexistence.

         — Peter Filichia


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