If I had to name the most thrilling moment of musical theater this season, it would have to be the performance of the title song of Rodgers' and Hart's ON YOUR TOES, as staged by Warren Carlyle in the City Center Encores revival (second place would go to the first act finale of KINKY BOOTS). It moves from solo piano, to full band, to solo singer to singing chorus to some amazing competitive dancing between a troupe of tappers and a troupe of ballet dancers, all to a catchy Rodgers tune from when he could write jazzy (before he lost his mojo in his collaboration with Hammerstein). A series of benches are in constant motion as the dancers move in ever-changing patterns. The song goes on for about five minutes and all of us in the euphoric capacity audience would have been happy for another five minutes. It is the greatest joy in this joyful, beautifully staged production of a show with one of Richard Rodgers' finest scores. If I had to choose between Rodgers' scores with Hart and his scores with Hammerstein, I'd choose Rodgers and Hart every time. Hart was a brilliant lyricist, tangy where Hammerstein was corny. ON YOUR TOES is filled with brilliant lyrics; for ballads like "Glad to Be Unhappy" and for comic numbers like "The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye." Rodgers' tunes and all memorable, from the sweet, simple "There's a Small Hotel" to the soaring melodies of the ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue."
Yes, the book (credited to Rodgers and Hart and George Abbott) doesn't make a lot of sense, and Encores has wisely trimmed the dialogue to the essentials. It's there to provide continuity for the magnificent score. What's left are the wittier moments as when Junior, the leading character (Shonn Wiley) asks sophisticated patron of the arts Peggy Porterfield (the wonderful Christine Baranski), "Can a good person love two women," and she responds "Only if he's very good." Of course, this is the kind of line Baranski relishes.
Encores is always brilliant in its casting of a balance of established stars and newcomers. The surprise here is American Ballet Theatre star ballerina Irina Dvorovenko playing a star ballerina. Of course she dances brilliantly, but who knew she could deliver funny dialogue? She's delightful. New York City Ballet dancer Jaoquin DeLuz matches her in diva/divo rivalry. Baranski and Walter Bobbie are great as the impressario and his patroness. When are they going to revive MAME on Broadway for Baranski? Kelli Barret is a fine singer who makes the most of "Glad to Be Unhappy." The part of Junior is a killer. He has to be a good singer, comic actor, tap dancer and ballet dancer. I've never seen a performer do well in all four areas. In a London revival some years ago, Adam Cooper danced brilliantly, but wasn't much of a singer or actor. In the 1983 Broadway revival, Lara Teeter danced and sang well, but did't exude much personality. Here Shonn Wiley is a charming performer with a solid tenor voice. He is very funny in the parody ballet "La Princesse Zenobia" that ends the first act. What he can't do is match Dvorovenko's dancing in "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" where he seems out of his depth as a dancer. He's such a winning performer throughout the rest of the show that we accept his game try at the big ballet. There was only one Gene Kelly who could do everything the role demands and he never played Junior onstage.
A great afternoon of theater that left the audience on a grand high.
ON YOUR TOES. New York City Center. May 11, 2013.