A musical to boost Broadway's sagging morale
New York — On Your Toes Musical comedy with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, book by Rodgers and Hart and George Abbott. Directed by Mr. Abbott. Original choreography by George Balanchine. Starring Natalia Makarova.
By George, he's done it! George Abbott, that is. With the pristine new production of ''On Your Toes,'' starring Natalia Makarova, the venerable Mr. A. has lifted Broadway's sagging morale and made the approach of spring something to celebrate.
''On Your Toes,'' at the Virginia Theater, is not only a musical with its own special gloss and graceful vigor. In 1936, it made theatrical history. It was inspired by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's desire to introduce ballet into a Broadway musical. Dance - classic, contemporary, soft-shoe, and lots of tap - was integrated into the story by George Balanchine. ''Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, '' the choreographic climax, turns on a melodramatic plot-within-a-plot in which hero Junior Dolan (Lara Teeter) must literally dance as if his life depended on it.
In his book ''The World of Musical Comedy,'' Stanley Green has called the landmark musical ''one of the supreme theatrical achievements of the mid-30s.'' The first-rate revival at the Virginia offers a fresh and yet authentic reminder of novelties past. Old-timers and new talents conjoin to honor the tradition of the Broadway musical.
The slight plot of ''On Your Toes'' has been slightly altered by coauthor Abbott. Junior Dolan, scion of a family of vaudeville headliners, retires from the business to attend school. He next turns up as a bespectacled music prof at Knickerbocker University - WPA Extension (remember the era?). Among them, his students compose such professionally stylish numbers as ''On Your Toes,'' ''Quiet Night,'' and the score for ''Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.''
Since Junior has surreptitiously preserved his dancing skill, he is somehow recruited for the part of a slave in a visiting Russian troupe's ''Princess Zenobia,'' a broad Balanchine spoof. Junior's body language and lack of body makeup create a comic sensation. Later, in a more serious attempt, he partners the enraptured Vera Baranova (Miss Makarova) in the dazzling, art-deco-expressionistic ''Slaughter.'' A slight love triangle involves Junior with the exotic Baranova and pretty student Frankie Frayne (Christine Andreas). Enough of plot.
What counts at the Virginia is the precise and sparkling zest of the performance mounted by Mr. Abbott and his colleagues. According to production notes, the choreography for ''Princess Zenobia'' and ''Slaughter'' are authentic Balanchine. They have been supervised and reconstructed by Peter Martins, who also contributed the opening and closing sections of the balletic lampoon. Donald Saddler staged the musical numbers, including the exuberant encounter between hoofers and ballet dancers done to the title tune. It is a tip-top free-for-all of tap and toe work.
The performance is constantly on its toes. In her first speaking role, Miss Makarova gives a marvelously graceful and mischievously witty performance as the susceptible prima ballerina. Mr. Teeter's Junior is nimble, vocally strong, and engagingly comic. Miss Andreas is pretty to look at and delightful to listen to.
George S. Irving is in top comic form as a flamboyant Russian impresario. The svelte Dina Merrill brings more than a touch of class and amusement to the role of the ballet's indispensable angel. As the ballerina's furiously jealous partner, George de la Pena prances, preens, and plots against our hero. Peter Slutsker portrays a fledgling composer - and plays the piano - with dash and conviction.
Besides the tunes mentioned earlier in this report, ''On Your Toes'' also blossoms musically in the melting ''There's a Small Hotel'' as well as serenading romance in ''Glad to Be Unhappy,'' ''It's Got to Be Love,'' and the tender ''Quiet Night.'' For lighter airs, there are ''Questions and Answers (the Three B's),'' ''Too Good for the Average Man,'' and ''The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye.''
''On Your Toes'' happily retains the crisp orchestrations created by the veteran Hans Spialek, who did them originally. At the preview I attended, the conducting was in the firm hands of music director and coproducer John Mauceri. The period production was designed by Zack Brown and lighted by John McLain.
Leave it to George. Excuse me - Mr. Abbott.