This undated theater image released by Helene Davis Public Relations shows Shonn Wiley, left, and Irina Dvorovenko during a performance of "On Your Toes," at New York City Center in New York. (AP Photo/Helene Davis Public Relations, Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK (AP) — There's been plenty of chatter on Broadway these days about how the revival of the musical "Pippin" has brilliantly combined circus elements. At New York City Center, it's nice to be reminded that such mashups aren't all that new.
Seventy-seven years ago, the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart musical "On Your Toes" broke new ground by adding huge dollops of ballet performed by classically trained dancers. No less a figure than George Balanchine was coaxed to choreograph — and he insisted that his credit should reflect that in the Broadway program, the first time "choreography by" would appear.
The show, with a slapdash book by Rodgers, Hart and George Abbott, opened in 1936 and was revived twice more, as well as being turned into a botched film. It now has been thrillingly revisited in the final Encores! concert series presentation of the season, opening Wednesday and running until Sunday.
Starring the always funny Christine Baranski and a great, steady Walter Bobbie, a director getting back to his acting roots, the show is terrifically performed by both Broadway hoofers and hard-core ballet pros, though the seams between the two worlds can sometimes be seen.
It is wittily and ingeniously directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, who has lovely touches throughout, as when someone falling in love sings about the ceiling "spinning" and is actually spinning in a chair.
The story is thin: A former vaudeville star who now teaches music (a fine Shonn Wiley) is falling for a student (Kelli Barrett, utterly winsome) when a classical Russian ballet troupe comes to town. The teacher soon falls for the troupe's narcissistic prima ballerina (Irina Dvorovenko, an American Ballet Theatre principal gamely making her musical theater debut). Her jealous boyfriend then tries to have him killed, leading to hijinks. (Don't think too hard about it).
The musical introduced two lovely songs — "Glad to be Unhappy" and "There's a Small Hotel" — and each act ends with two extended dance numbers — "La Princesse Zenobia" comic ballet and the famous "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," in which our hero must dance or die. (Balanchine's original choreography for "Slaughter" has been staged by Susan Pilarre, who served as a ballet mistress of the show's 1983 Broadway revival.)
As good as those ballets are, the highlight is when the musical theater dancers and the muscular ballet dancers face off in the title tune. As each group ratchets up the tricks — the tapping hoofers smack boards for percussive effect, while the ballerinas do their steps while being held upside down — one of the most thrilling dance numbers of the season is unveiled.
Though the musical continues — it ends with a crazed, forced collision of elements, almost as if the book writers just gave up — the visual of swanlike ballet dancers in white tutus and the musical theater veterans in colorful costumes each battling for the audience's respect lingers. Everyone wins.