Some of the pieces of "On Your Toes," Rodgers and Hart's gift to the 1936 Broadway season, which was revived last night in the Kennedy Center's Opera House, never really went into retirement. Rodgers' lovely "There's a Small Hotel," is still on the lips of singers who appreciate a gentle melodic lift. The witty slant Hart gave to his lyrics has not dated at all. And that sexily syncopated ballet, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," is a permanent part of the dance repertoire.
But the surprise of the Center's tasteful, though largely benign, revival is that seeing or hearing such treasures in the context for which they were created doesn't really enhance them a bit. Wonderful they are, wonderful they remain.And that still leaves the rest of the evening, one which is decidedly less than the sum of its digits.
Although there's been a little tinkering here and there, mostly with the book, the Kennedy Center seems to have stuck by its promise to give us as accurate a reproduction of the show as possible 46 years after the fact. None of the camp tricks that ressucitated "No, No, Nanette" for our time. No newfangled arrangements. No cosmetic touches to erase the inevitable wrinkles.
To that end, the Center engaged George Abbott to re-direct the show that he whipped into shape when it first tried out in Boston. Hans Spialek was pressed into service to restore his original orchestrations (and they are beguiling). And George Balanchine was persuaded to recreate his choreography for "Slaughter" and the "Princess Zenobia Ballet," which were largely responsible for making the musical a hit in the first place.
Authenticity, in this case, goes just so far, however, and the results will be of undiluted pleasure, I suspect, only to a fairly limited number of historians. The excitement that everyone else expects from the musical comedy comes in dribs and drabs. There are more dribs and drabs in the second act than the first, perhaps. But don't expect them to link up.
Most vintage musical comedy books need all the help they can get, but this one -- about the fortunes of a Russian ballet troupe in New York -- is receiving only the most routine assistance from a cast headed by Natalia Makarova as -- what else? -- a temperamental Russian ballerina; George de la Pena, as her equally temperamental partner; George S. Irving, as the temperamental impessario, and Lara Teeter, as a former vaudeville hoofer turned music professor, who doesn't have any temperament at all. He's even a bit of a patsy, but after nearly wrecking the fortunes of the ballet troupe, he's the one who comes through.
And saves the opening night.
And gets the girl.
It's 1936, after all.
Makarova shines precisely where you'd expect her to -- in the ballets. As an actress, she is a truly dramatic dancer. Her diction has been worked to a fare-thee-well for this, her musical comedy debut, but it is still thick and often impenetrable, which does nothing for the wise cracks Abbott has sewn throughout the script. By now, Irving can play temperament in his sleep, and nearly does. As his wealthy patron, Dina Merrill wears a virtual closet's worth of 1930s fashions very stylishly and sings a couple of numbers ("Too Good for the Average Man" and "The Heart is Quicker Than the Eye") not so stylishly.
Teeter, tall and vaguely gangly, proves a pleasant leading man, even though the story tends to make him a bit of a goon. Regina O'Malley is the fresh-faced ingenue he falls for, while he's lecturing the students at the WPA School of Music. When they join forces for "There's a Small Hotel" and "It's Gotta Be Love," the show warms up for a while. Those low-keyed songs would be even more engaging if there were some socko numbers elsewhere to set them off. But outside of the "Slaughter" ballet, and what you might call a dance-off in the second act that pits the tap shoes against ballet slippers to the sprightly rhythms of the title tune, the rousing moments are few.
Certainly, the "Princess Zenobia Ballet" is a disappointment. A satire of the thousand and one nights exoticism of the Ballets Russes, it is rather tame by today's standards, and the big joke, which has Teeter subbing for one of the dancers at the last minute and toppling the troupe like a house of cards, is no longer much of a joke. (Originally, some of those dancers were in black face. For this revival, they are in blue face. Even authenticity has its limits, apparently.)
That ballet is danced in a harem, designed by Zack Brown, that Erte himself might envy. Brown, in fact, may be the true hero of this production. His set for "Slaughter" is a marvel of angular chic, bordered in ocean liner chrome, and his costumes seem to have paraded right out of Vanity Fair. If 1930s musicals didn't really look like this, they should have.
ON YOUR TOES. Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Lorenz Hart. Book by George Abbott, Rodgers and Hart. Directed by George Abbott. Choreography, George Balanchine and Peter Martins; musical numbers staged by Donald Saddler; production design, Zack Brown; lighting, John McLain; orchestratlons, Hans Spialek; musical director, John Mauceri. With Natalia Makarova, George S. Irving, Dina Merrill, George de la Peria, Lara Teeter, Regina O'Malley. At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Jan. 16.