Some theatergoers may remember the original 1936 production of "On Your Toes," but it's a safe bet that for many the revival now playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is, if not a first (there was a 1954 Broadway edition as well), at most a second exposure.
How is the view 50 years later?
Benign. In an age that places great emphasis on reanimating traditional American values comes the revival of a musical that literally exults in them. It is blissfully naive by most modern standards, but the standards to be marshaled here cannot be considered "most."
Required is a pre-acceptance of unabashed, undisguised nostalgia. If you can lull yourself back to a sunny post-depression, pre-nuclear world in which young men say to young women such things as, "I'll tell you something; it's terribly personal; I really shouldn't say it (pause, pause); I'm terribly fond of you (blush, blush) . . . ," well, you'll love "On Your Toes."
And for better reasons as well: three ballet sequences (choreographed by Peter Martins, Donald Saddler and the late George Balanchine); the raw but very game comedic talents of Natalia Makarova, the actress, as a man-hungry premiere danseuse (what else?); the lilting early sound of Richard Rodgers and perceptive lyrics of Lorenz Hart (including such memory joggers as "There's a Small Hotel," "It's Got to Be Love," "Too Good for the Average Man" and "The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye"--and George Abbott's head-on direction, which can't stray too far from the bone since he not only staged the original, but also wrote the book with Rodgers and Hart.
Musically, we have the sound of the '30s, faithful to the original Hans Spialek orchestrations, delivered under the bouncy musical direction of Paul Schwartz.
Except for the modern scourge of overmiking (isn't it time sound designers control the technology instead of vice-versa?), this is a satisfying revival handled by a capable if not exceptional company, somewhat straitjacketed by the limitations of the story.
It is a simplistic tale of a true-blue American dancer turned music teacher named Junior (Lara Teeter) who talks a Russian ballet company and its angel (Dina Merrill) into doing a "Jazz" ballet. Unwary, he falls for the flamboyant prima ballerina (Makarova) to the chagrin of his American girlfriend (Kathleen Rowe McAllen) and the fury of the ballerina's Russian lover/dancing partner (George de la Pena) who plots to have Junior shot on stage.
Not quite the stuff of classics, but Teeter as Junior (a role created in 1936 by Ray Bolger), has easy-going grace and a boyish appeal that complement his superior song and dance.
As his miffed American girlfriend (one of those difficult ingenue non roles), McAllen's best asset is her strong voice, while former American Ballet Theatre dancer de la Pena comes up with solid acting and dancing support as Makarova's overdrawn jealous Russian lover.
The other characters are no more than broadly penciled-in stereotypes, with Merrill stuck in the most thankless one of all as the moneyed, genial and bland philanthropist who exerts the final pressure to get the "jazz ballet" on. She dispatches it as best she can--with care and genteel earnestness.
These characters, however, provide more context than content. Saddler has protected this collection of innocents and nondancers by providing them with placid choreography, but he fully redeems himself with the energetic "On Your Toes" ballet.
From Makarova the dancer, we know we'll get the best (and do), but Makarova the actress is a real surprise. Leggy, funny, spirited and sexy, she turns ordinary lines into small comic explosions, relishing every high-kick and all the blatant posturing of her extravagant creation.
Nowhere do we appreciate this combination more than in the "Princess Zenobia" ballet that is choreographed by Martins as the climax of Act I, spoofing the deadly seriousness of the Russian ballet of the time--and in the more angular and complex "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" ballet, choreographed by Balanchine, that is the play's apotheosis. Makarova's absolute control as the combustible stripper and her floppy corpse routine after a bullet puts her away are a memorable ending to this wholly superficial, savvy, scintillating evening.