"On Your Toes" was a Broadway musical milestone in 1936, when, for the first time, ballet was integrated into the story and, also for the first time, credit for the "dance stager" was officially elevated to choreographer. Variety even noted, in classic showbiz-speak, that the choreographer -- a young Russian émigré named George Balanchine -- "has done an ace job on the terp angle."
The high-styled Rodgers and Hart frolic made a different kind of history at its hit 1983 revival. This was partly for the canny staging by original director George Abbott, then 95, and mostly for the revelatory Tony-winning theatrical debut of ballerina Natalia Makarova as Vera, the deliciously wicked diva of a traveling Russian ballet company.
The City Center Encores! series is closing its 20th anniversary season this weekend with a cheerful but narratively sketchy and hardly revitalizing semi-staged revival of the gangster-ballet concoction. It has been pleasantly directed and choreographed -- except for a reasonable but not sizzling re-creation of Balanchine's 1968 version of the big finale, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" -- by Warren Carlyle.
Despite some creative casting and excellent hoofing, however, this feels more like a minor museum piece than the vibrant musical comedy we saw 30 years ago. Irina Dvorovenko, part of American Ballet Theatre since 1996, is lovely, with the leafy, punchy attack and high-drama comic attitude that make Vera so tempestuously delightful.
In this adaptation, however, the Russian company is no longer a down-on-its-heels classic troupe that gets saved by the daring new jazz ballet. Even with the amusing Walter Bobbie (on a welcome stage break from directing) as the snobby impresario, dramatic tension, such as it is, evaporates.
This is a production in which the dancing is better than the singing. Shonn Wiley has the easygoing floppy finesse of a young Dick Van Dyke as the vaudeville-bred music professor torn between the Russian vamp and the wholesome girl (the charm-challenged Kelli Barrett).
Christine Baranski, as the stylish ballet patron, swallows her words and seems awfully nice to sing "Too Good for the Average Man." Karen Ziemba is a treat in a vaudeville cameo. The full orchestra sounds wonderful, Lorenz Hart's literate lyrics rhyme Orpheus and Morpheus, and Richard Rodgers' melodies, once again, stamp "There's a Small Hotel" into our bloodlines. We were just hoping for more.
WHAT "On Your Toes"
WHERE New York City Center, 55th Street east of Seventh Avenue
INFO $60-$130; 212-581-1212, nycitycenter.org, through Sunday
BOTTOM LINE More relic than revelation