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STAGE REVIEW

Cape's 'On Your Toes' is a nimble comic affair

DENNIS - Rodgers and Hart's "On Your Toes'' is one of the classics of musical comedy, but not one we get to see very often.

Like "Kiss Me, Kate,'' it is about a comic clash between pop culture and high art; Broadway hoofers meet stars of the Russian ballet. Back in 1936, the choreography was by George Balanchine, no less. His jazz ballet ``Slaughter on Tenth Avenue'' created a sensation.

The show also made a star of Ray Bolger, and the score contributed at least two standards to the Great American Songbook, ``There's a Small Hotel'' and "Glad to Be Unhappy.''

The reason ``On Your Toes'' is rarely revived is that it is difficult and expensive to stage; the principal ballet dancers don't have to be Russian, but they do have to be good. Also the book is pretty much a period piece, light as a feather once airborne, but taking its own sweet time to get off the ground.

The plot is based on such burning questions as: ``Will the Russian ballet produce `Slaughter on Tenth Avenue'?'' and ``W ill the music professor (and former child vaudevillian) Junior Dolan realize in time that he really loves student songwriter Frankie Frayne, and not the tempestuous prima ballerina Vera Baronova?''

Producing "On Your Toes'' was an ambitious venture for the Cape Playhouse; there's a cast of 20 whizzing around the tiny stage. But the show comes up fresh as a daisy. For the ballet stars, the Playhouse turned to the American Ballet Theatre, and came up with Michele Wiles and Marcelo Gomes. Rodgers and Hart spare them the ordeal of singing, but they do have to act, or at least put on a show, as dueling egos. They really go at it, and seem to be having the time of their lives.

Wiles is all whim, charm, fire, spite, and allure. She has an expert sense of comic timing and an outrageous faux-Russian accent that may owe something to her mentor, Natalia Makarova, (who played Baronova in the last Broadway revival, two decades ago). Gomes, as the premiere danseur with mob connections, smolders even when he is pouting. And of course they dance up a storm in the big ``Russian'' ballet ``La Princesse Zenobia'' that closes the first act (to music in the exotic vein that Rodgers would mine again decades later in ``The King & I''). ``Zenobia'' may be ersatz ballet, but those spectacular jumps, turns, spins, lifts, and balances are real.

``Zenobia'' becomes comic when hoofer John MacInnis has to substitute at the last minute for a missing slave. He's never with it, which (like deliberately singing off key) isn't that easy to do. MacInnis is hilarious in an episode when Vera is trying to seduce him with ballet moves like Odile's in ``Swan Lake,'' and he really comes into his own in ``Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.'' He can sing amiably, too.

As the singing lead, Garrett Long offers a pretty voice and stage presence, and she gives the show its one hint of genuine emotion when she sings ``Glad to Be Unhappy.'' SuEllen Estey and Stephen Berger offer strong support as the ballet company's patroness and impresario. The smaller parts are taken by the splendid ensemble team of dancing singers and singing dancers.

Nicholas Dorr's witty sets suggest extravagance economically, and Jose Rivera's costumes are colorful and fun. From the piano, musical director Andrew Gerle officiates over cast and pit band with period pep. Director James Brennan keeps things moving even across the slow spots, and choreographer Eileen Grace's ingenious and energetic work bows to Balanchine's original in layout and in style. The niftiest number is the title song, during which a corps of ballet dancers and a team of tappers kaleidoscopically - and multiculturally - storm the stage. ``On Your Toes'' ought to bring audiences to their feet every night.

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