On Your Toes at Encores!: Dancing With the Real Stars

Hearty songs meet happy feet in this vivid revival of the 1936 show by Rodgers and Hart — and Balanchine

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Helene Davis Public Relations, Joan Marcus / AP Photo

Christine Baranski, left, and Walter Bobbie during a performance of "On Your Toes," at New York City Center in New York.

“Do you think my music will still be played 100 years from now?” asks the young composer. “If you’re still around,” his music teacher sarcastically replies, “it will be.” This exchange is from On Your Toes, the 1936 show that brought together four Broadway legends: the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, librettist-director George Abbott, and choreographer George Balanchine. Seventy-seven years later, folks are still humming the show’s hit song “There’s a Small Hotel” and dozens of other Rodgers and Hart tunes. Will they still be played in 2036? If the world doesn’t blow up or go under, they will be.

And if there’s any justice, Encores! will still be producing three concert revivals of Broadway musicals each year from now to infinity. Since 1994, at City Center on 55th Street, the musical theater’s brightest curators have mounted spiffy reboots that are usually among any season’s most appealing shows, new or vintage. Grand old films can be found on Turner Classic Movies and on thousands of DVDs, but a stage production dies on closing night. The mission and triumph of Encores! is to bring classic musicals back to life, as they were originally scored, with the finest contemporary directors and actor-singers as loving curators. Five of the series’ 60 shows have featured Rodgers and Hart scores: Pal Joey (1995), The Boys from Syracuse (1997), Babes in Arms (1999), A Connecticut Yankee (2001) and, this week through Sunday, the delightful, dance-crazy On Your Toes.

(READ: Bravo! Encores!)

For its 20th anniversary, Encores! has looked back on its own history, and that of the giant Moorish mausoleum that houses it. The year’s first production, of the 1958 Fiorello!, was a revival of  a revival — of the musical that launched the series in 1994 — and a reminder that New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had converted City Center in 1940 from a defaulted Shriners’ hall into a theater for the performing arts. After a fresh production of the 1966 pop-art musical It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman, Artistic Director Jack Viertel and the Encores! brain trust present On Your Toes.

For longtime admirers of this series, the reverberations are plentiful and deep. Rob Fisher, the series’ first music director and its invaluable archaeologist from 1994 to 2005, returns as conductor of On Your Toes. Walter Bobbie, who directed that first Fiorello! (as well as the 1996 Encores! revival of Chicago, still running on Broadway 17 years later), is back to play the ballet impresario. The director and main choreographer is Warren Carlyle — his seventh stint with the company. The show begins with a vaudeville tap number spiritedly performed by Karen Ziemba, who appeared in the first season’s revival of Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s Allegro, and Randy Skinner, the choreographer for five previous Encores! shows, including last season’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s like Old Home Week, and the veterans are in top form, their precision and vitality undiminished.

(READ: How Megan Hilty did Marilyn Monroe in the Encores! Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)

As in any Encores! evening, the most sonorous echoes are a siren call from the Broadway musical’s glorious past. Beyond its tributes to Rodgers and Hart, and to Abbott — this is the 13th of his shows to be revived here, if you count Fiorello! twice — On Your Toes pays special homage to Balanchine, the great Russian choreographer with the habit of marrying his prima ballerinas. (His first wife Tamara Geva played the haughty ballet star in the original production; his third wife, Vera Zorina, starred in the 1939 movie version and a 1954 Broadway revival.) Balanchine’s most constant marriage may have been the one with Center Center: the place was home to his New York City Ballet company from 1948 until he moved it to Lincoln Center 16 years later. Throughout the decades, City Center has remained Manhattan’s premiere salon for traveling dance ensembles. This weekend it vivaciously kicks up its heels, whether they are encased in ballet slippers or in tap shoes.

(READ: Our 1954 cover story on George Balanchine by subscribing to TIME)

Junior Dolan (Shann Wiley), 15 years after a boyhood of vaudeville tapping with his parents, has become a stuffy, bespectacled music teacher — but one who still has a yen to dance — at a college where all the kids are pert and pretty. Well, except for Sidney Cohn (Jeremy Cohen), a budding genius who has composed “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” That gives Junior the clever notion to have the piece staged as a ballet. Frankie Frayne (Kelli Barrett), a budding songwriter and Junior’s cutest student, introduces him to her rich friend Peggy Porterfield (Christine Baranski), patroness of the ballet company run by Sergei Alexandrovitch (Bobbie, impersonating the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who had employed the teenage Balanchine as a choreographer). Alexandrovitch’s prima ballerina, Vera Baranova (Irina Dvorovenko), currently tiffing with her beau and fellow dancer Konstantine Morrosine (Joaquin De Luz), latches on to the “Slaughter” number as a career expander and to Junior as a romantic distraction. Junior ends up in two ballets: the classical “La princesse Zenobia,” which he disrupts because he doesn’t know the steps, and the jazzy “Slaughter,” a pas de deux with Vera that finally has him literally dancing for his life, as he attempts to dodge a hitman hired by Konstantine.

Some critics have found On Your Toes revolutionary, as a book musical that organically interpolated two Balanchine ballets, thus prefiguring Agnes de Mille’s statelier ’40s work in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma and Carousel. Actually, though, the Balanchine pieces are two additional items in the show’s grab-bag of sweet or saucy tunes, boy-meets-two-girls romance and backstage shenanigans in a let’s-put-on-a-show plot. It’s very much a product of its carefree Broadway era, and of creators still in their young prime: Rodgers was 33, Hart 40, Balanchine 32. (Abbott was 48 at the time, but since he remained active until his death at the age of 107, he was still, by the standards of his improbable longevity, a kid.) Both ballets, which surely display Balanchine’s signature grace, wit and narrative clarity, climax in roughhouse comedy. The musical is popular art having fun with high art. And the master of dance as art eagerly abetted the raillery, As Balanchine told TIME in 1950, “You have to do little novelties for the public once in a while.”

(READ: Gerald Clarke’s tribute to George Abbott’s 100th birthday)

As suitable as On Your Toes is for Encores!’ emerald celebration, it’s far from the strongest Rodgers and Hart musical. Babes in Arms hatched such perennials as “Where or When,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Johnny One-Note,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again” and “The Lady Is a Tramp”; The Boys from Syracuse spawned “Falling in Love With Love,” “Sing for Your Supper” and “This Can’t Be Love”; Pal Joey introduced “I Could Write a Book” and “Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered.” Aside from “Small Hotel” (which the team had written for, and cut from, the 1935 Jumbo) and the familiar theme from “Slaughter,” few airs from On Your Toes have lodged securely in the alterkocker’s iTunes. Mind you, even middling Rodgers and Hart is celestial Anyone Else. And if Encores! audiences don’t float out of Center City humming the tunes, they’ll be buoyed by the expert staging and flawless renditions.

(READ: Corliss’ tribute to Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart)

It’s pleasant to reconnect with favorite stars at City Center’s class (high-class) reunion, but it’s even niftier to find first-time Encores! performers who understand the sacred, endangered laws of old-time musical comedy. I loved Barrett as Junior’s true love interest. Looking like an ideal form of the young Julia Roberts, she moves her slim body with uncommon grace. Then she sings: a lilting, surprisingly robust soprano that captures the dreamland of “Small Hotel,” the sky-high bounce of “It’s Got to Be Love,” the knowing romantic masochism of “Glad to Be Unhappy.” I don’t just want Barrett to star in the next new Broadway show; I want Rodgers and Hart to come back and write more songs for her charmingly anachronistic gifts.

The big Toes news is Ukraine-born Dvorovenko, principal dancer at Manhattan’s American Ballet Theatre. Making her non-ballet debut, Dvorovenko lasers her star quality like darts into each member of the audience. She earns as many conspiratorial laughs from her posture — a diva’s raised chin, the stalking walk, the arms waving airily as if in some Moscow-Bollywood musical — as from her imperiously droll diction. She is both the apotheosis  of a ballet star and its delicious parody. Dvorovenko’s work here proves she could glow with the same dazzle on any stage or screen.

(READ: A fabulous Follies at Encores!)

The “Slaughter” ballet was restaged by former Balanchine soloist Susan Pilarre, and “Zenobia” reinvented by director Carlyle. Neither overwhelms. The real treat is “Up on Your Toes,” which sends a dozen tap dancers and eight ballet dancers into a face- and foot-off. This great number (not in the original show but devised for the 1983 Broadway revival) pits classical elegance against proletarian energy, as the dancers push five benches around — tapping or pirouetting on them or just plain kicking them — and strutting their sublime, furious stuff for a breathless eight minutes. It’s an exhilarating effusion that resolves, more clearly than the formal ballets, the presumed oppositions between high dance and pop dance, between Nureyev and Gene Kelly. There’s no barrier, not when all the performers realize they gotta dance.

Some Broadway shows try for profundity, others just for fun. In its best moments, the Encores! On Your Toes evokes a more elusive feeling: theatrical rapture. And you can’t wait 100 years to see if this revival is immortal. You have until Sunday to get to City Center and share the joy.