How swell of Rodgers & Hart to come to the rescue. Just when it began to appear we might go through an almost utterly tuneless Broadway theater season, the matchless pair breezed in from the songwriters' heaven with a sparkling new revival of their 1936 musical "On Your Toes." It opened last evening at the newly named Virginia, formerly the ANTA.
When the show, splendidly cast and staged, and starring the prima ballerina Natalia Makarova, is singing and dancing, it is unbeatable. In this new yet remarkably faithful version, the title song has been worked into an extended ensemble dance number that makes the spirits soar. Not too many steps later, we arrive at the celebrated "jazz" ballet (not jazz at all, but who cares?) "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" that brings the evening, except for a brief tag, to a close that is both dazzling and funny.
The book by Rodgers and Hart and George Abbott, who has touched it up and directed it with all the vigor of a salty newcomer being given his first crack at Broadway, drags a bit, especially in the first and slower of the two acts. But for some strange reason, it plays better than it did in the 1954 revival. This is due, in large part, to the excellent cast in which Makarova, having her first fling at musical comedy in, fittingly enough, the role of a prima ballerina, turns out to be a delightful comedienne, an accomplishment enhanced by the slender Russian blonde's struggles with the English language, particularly American slang.
Some may recall that the story, oddly similar to the 1937 Astaire-Rodgers-Gershwin film classic "Shall We Dance," and actually concocted several years earlier by Rodgers & Hart, who were unable to interest Hollywood in it, details the efforts to persuade a Russian dance impresario to introduce an American jazz ballet, a proposal promptly accepted when the troupe's chief benefactor, a rich American woman, uses her checkbook as a weapon. Otherwise, it's the same old boy-meets-girl story.
But it's the songs that count; those lovely, spirited Rodgers melodies so deftly laced with Hart's bright, peppery and charming lyrics, marvelously clever at times ("The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye," "Too Good for the Average Man") and enchantingly pellucid at others ("Quiet Night," "Glad to Be Unhappy"), and achieving their lyrical height in "There's a Small Hotel." Not a dud in the lot, from the opening vaudeville routine, "Two a Day for Keith," set in 1920, through the remainder of the show, taking place 15 years later.
No need to remind you that Makarova is a dream of a dancer, admirably chosen for the part of the tempestuous, man-hungry Vera Baronova. Dancing opposite her in the "Slaughter" spectacle, but elsewhere playing the singing-dancing juvenile lead of Junior, is Lara Teeter, a thoroughly engaging hoofer lacking only Ray Bolger's remarkable elevations (a Bolger specialty) in the climactic ballet. Christine Andreas is fetching as the ingenue, Frankie Frayne, with some of the niftiest songs at her disposal. George S. Irving and Dina Merrill, whether singing or dealing with the book, couldn't be improved upon as the impresario and his sponsor. George De La Pena is amusing as Makarova's stuffy, Erick Rhodes-type regular dance partner and lover, and the diminutive Peter Slutsker makes a promising Broadway debut as the American composer - clowning a bit, dancing a bit, and playing piano handily.
While Abbott has kept the company truly on its toes, equal credit must go to Donald Saddler, whose dance numbers were so vital to the success of the "No, No Nanette" revival a decade back, and whose staging of all the musical numbers but two is joyous. Those two, of course, are recreations of George Balanchine's choreography, embellished by the distinguished dancer and choreographer Peter Martins, for "Slaughter" and the ludicrous, except for Makarova's leg-work, "Princess Zenobia" takeoff on Russian ballet that ends the first half.
The original Hans Spialek orchestrations, supervised by the 88-year-old arranger and filtered through an unusually sensitive sound man riding the familiar console at the rear of the house, sparkle like new under the smart direction of John Mauceri. Zack Brown's scenery and costumes really rise to the occasion only in "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." John McLain's lighting is serviceable.
Rodgers & Hart in town again! Imagine! What better news this musical season! Spring is here, as Larry Hart observed in another song, another show.
The breadlines and soup kitchens haven't hit Broadway yet. But with the arrival last night, at the Virginia Theater, of the ANTA-Kennedy Center's stunning new production of Rodgers & Hart's seminal On Your Toes, the spirit of the 1930s American musical theater lives again.
To put it in its proper perspective, On Your Toes is the cornerstone 1936 musical in which that splendid repertory staple of the New York City Ballet, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, made its first appearance. Now, with this spectacular restoration job, modern audiences finally have the chance to see an authentic version of the show in which George Balanchine formally introduced choreography to the Broadway stage.
For all its silly contrivance, the show's book perfectly sums up the then new attitude toward dance that would come to revolutionize the musical theater.
Jauntily overseen here by the great George Abbott, the work's original director and co-writer, the plot involves a former vaudeville hoofer, gone legit as a serious music teacher, who convinces a Russian ballet company to introduce an American jazz ballet into its classical repertoire.
Lara Teeter, a lanky song-and-dance man with an agreeably goofy grin, plays this young visionary with frank good humor, and makes a splendid display of his dancing skills in the sensational Slaughter finale.
As the tempestuous Russian dancer who drives the poor boy crazy, classical ballet star Natalia Makarova not only ignites the dance fires of the ballet but makes a deliciously saucy flirt in the earlier comedy scenes.
One might have hoped for more physical chemistry between the two in this hot number - something to match the provocative sleaze of Zack Brown's erotic black-spangled costumes - but it's hard to quibble with the admirable style of Donald Saddler's choreographic authenticity. In addition to recreating Balanchine's work (the drolly satiric Zenobia ballet as well as the Slaughter), Saddler supplied some marvelous new choreography for the rest of the show.
A vibrant young company of dancers drawn from both the musical theater and the classical ballet illustrates what On Your Toes is all about - the crazy-mixed-up thrills of mating separate dance disciplines in a brand new way.
The exuberant title-number dance, which has American jazz dancers and the Russian ballet corps hurling themselves into each other's traditions of music and dance, is a glorious celebration of Broadway's dreams for the musical theater in the '30s.
Just to underline the point, the cast includes George de la Pena as a tempermental Russian dancer who resists the exotic new hybridization. For all his character's protestations and alarms, de la Pena's own smooth melding of balletic grace and Broadway razzmatazz makes the case.
It shouldn't dash anyone's fun to observe here that the 47-year-old musical might have been cocked up good if someone with less integrity than John Mauceri had seen to the authenticity of the score. Working from the original orchestrations by Hans Spialek, Mauceri deserves full credit for allowing us to hear not only what Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart actually wrote, but the way they wanted it to be heard.
In addition to the timeless beauty of the Slaughter ballet, the joy-number of the show remains Rodgers's serenely tender There's a Small Hotel. It is sung here with incredible sweetness by Christine Andreas, who makes several other charming contributions as the hero's faithful girlfriend.
Two upbeat numbers - that clever tongue-teaser The Three B's and the politely wicked Too Good for the Average Man, delivered as drily by Dina Merrill as a fur-wrapped socialite - show off Hart's unique genius for the mathematically perfect lyric.
But surely Quiet Night will turn out to be the real reclamation project of this revival. As sung in a reflective mood by George S. Irving - who soars through the rest of the show with great comic energy as an excitable Russian impresario - this quiet beauty would soothe a sabertooth tigher in mid-lunge.
On Your Toes couldn't have come along at a more opportune moment to drag this dismal Broadway season Onto Its Feet.
The biggest thrill offered by ''On Your Toes,'' the 1936 musical revived last night at the Virginia, is the poster outside the theater. There you will find three of the most illustrious names of Broadway history - Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and George Abbott - as well as a fourth name that transcends both Broadway and history, George Balanchine. It's sad that the show heralded by the poster has only a marginal relationship to the giant talents who share top billing.
''On Your Toes'' is one of the weakest endeavors ever to engage the concentration of these men, together or separately. It is a mystery why Mr. Abbott and some dedicated new collaborators - among them such ballet royalty as Natalia Makarova and Peter Martins - have devoted so much loving care and expense to resuscitating it now. The last Broadway revival of this musical, in 1954, was a failure, and that clearly was no fluke. Though ''On Your Toes'' is an undeniable historic artifact - what work created by these artists would not be? - it is of footnote caliber. Its few assets as entertainment are scattered like sweet and frail rose petals on a stagnant pond.
In its original production, the show was cheered primarily because of its star, Ray Bolger, and because it contained the first ballet ever to be integrated into the plot of a musical, ''Slaughter on 10th Avenue.'' Given its mirthless, lengthy book and (by Rodgers and Hart standards) middling, brief score, ''On Your Toes'' needs a dynamic leading man of Mr. Bolger's stature to have even a prayer of flying today: the musical's hero - a hoofer-turned-music professor caught up with a Russian ballet company and the underworld - is at the center of nearly everything.
At the Virginia, this role has unaccountably fallen to Lara Teeter, a standard Broadway chorus dancer with little discernible personality. He fails to carry the show and undermines its noble efforts to reproduce the past faithfully. Paired with Christine Andreas in two supreme duets, ''There's a Small Hotel'' and ''It's Got to Be Love,'' he provides insipid crooning that sends the normally vibrant Miss Andreas crashing to his level. Paired with Miss Makarova in ''Slaughter on 10th Avenue,'' he brings such leaden strain to its final passage that he deflates his partner's delightful contribution and mars the hard work done by Mr. Martins, who has fastidiously reconstructed the Balanchine choreography for this production.
Even if Mr. Teeter were an airy and antic Bolgeresque dancer, however, it's not clear that the climactic ballet would be a sufficient payoff to the dull subplots and hoary gags that precede it. Though ''Slaughter'' has aged far better than most of its surroundings, this splash of gangster-motif jazziness is but a doodle next to ''Who Cares?,'' the Balanchine classic set to Gershwin tunes of the same period. Nor does ''Slaughter'' seem the stunning theatrical innovation that audiences found it in 1936. While the dance may be worked into the show's plot, that plot is so arbitrary and silly that the exercise is a pointless technical feat. It was really the Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration with Agnes de Mille in ''Oklahoma!'' seven years later that meaningfully wedded serious dance to the fabric of a Broadway musical.
The other Balanchine dance of the evening, the Act I finale, is a gag that has outlived its time: a parody of Fokine's ballet ''Sheherazade.'' Because the satirical target is no longer a popular favorite, this extended cartoon plays to dead silence. Only Miss Makarova and her expert partner, a fellow American Ballet Theater alumnus, George de la Pena, get the joke. It says how much Mr. Balanchine has remade the face of dance in the decades since ''On Your Toes'' that he, not his Russian predecessors, is now a subject of parody in a current Broadway musical: ''Slaughter on 10th Avenue'' is ribbed mildly by Gower Champion in ''42d Street.''
''On Your Toes'' also has a considerable amount of new, non-Balanchine choreography in the appropriate period vernacular, provided by Donald Saddler. The best of it can be found in the title number, which is rousingly conceived as a fantasy battle between ballet and tap dancers: it is graced by an all-too-brief appearance by another fine soloist, the lithe Starr Danias, but is also chilled by the all-black setting provided by the designer, Zack Brown.
Like the dancing, the music is generally presented with admirable authenticity. The score is heard in mostly the original Hans Spialek orchestrations; a large band (shimmering twin pianos included) plays it to soaring effect under the exceptional direction of John Mauceri. The miking is minimal - it's a pleasure to find no credit for ''sound design'' in the Playbill. Unfortunately, most of the solo singers have trouble projecting their lyrics past the pit. Though we hear the routine Hart sentiments to the lovely Rodgers tune for the choral number ''Quiet Night,'' the more dexterous words to ''Small Hotel'' and ''Too Good for the Average Man'' tend to evaporate.
As for Mr. Abbott's staging, it's the patented article - straightforward, uncampy, all-American in its foursquare ingenuousness. How one wishes he had chosen to apply his firm hand to a revival of a subsequent Rodgers-Hart-Abbott musical such as ''The Boys From Syracuse'' or ''Pal Joey'' instead. One also wishes that Mr. Abbott had given the show's book major instead of cosmetic surgery and that he had gotten more out of his cast: from Mr. Teeter and Miss Andreas through the ranks (which include George S. Irving and Dina Merrill), we get at most dogged professionalism.
The surprising exception is Miss Makarova, all dolled up as a flirtatious blond ballerina. It's true that her comic displays of temperament are amateur, but it's equally true that great acting isn't required. What Miss Makarova brings to ''On Your Toes,'' in addition to her leggy mock-stripper's turn in ''Slaughter,'' is a sense of freshness and fun. She seems to be the only one who finds doing this show an invigorating novelty, rather than a rigorous academic exercise in historical preservation. And it's only when she's on stage that we feel we're at the theater, witnessing something alive and new, rather than at school, dutifully poring over the musty lesser sketches of the old masters.