"On Your Toes," the Rodgers and Hart hit of 1936, will always have a home in Broadway's hall of fame. But even when old musicals don't die, they can fade a bit with age.
The show, with George Abbott's verbal polish and George Balanchine's choreography, has a certain charm. But despite 95- year-old Abbott's direction and 78-year-old Balanchine's expertise, the revival plays a tad mustily in the Kennedy Center's Opera House. Several bouncy and stylish performances, notably from Russian-born ballet star Natalia Makarova, can't give matters more than period-piece immediacy.
The story line -- a silly one, in the tradition of Depression escapism -- concerns erstwhile vaudevillian Junior Dolan, now a WPA music prof, and his last-minute stint with a classical ballet company. He presses on them a jazz work by one of his promising students (it happens to be the famous "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue"), and dallies with the prima ballerina -- thus provoking the wrath of her leading man and lover.
The show boasts pleasant-enough songs of the "moon-croon-spoon" variety -- "There's a Small Hotel" and "The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye" among them -- a full-dress production number and two short ballets. The acting is generally fine, with such veterans as George S. Irving as the ballet master and Dina Merrill as his socialite patron and charming newcomer Makarova equally adept at getting laughs. But there's no great evidence that most of the players can sing.
Hampered by ragged miking -- and microphones seem a damnable if necessary stopgap measure -- the cast sounds variously mushy and hoarse. Regina O'Malley as Junior's moony admirer, for instance, seems to have a sweet voice but fuzzy diction. Merrill, along with Lara Teeter as Dolan, are intelligible but no musicians. Only Irving seems in control, giving weight to words and notes.
The dancing also seems uneven -- running from the authoritative steps of Makarova and co-balletomane George De La Pena as her jealous partner Morrosine, to the scattered moves and rhythms of some of the bit players. Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" benefits from Makarova's limber stylishness and Teeter's athletic zeal -- though his stretch pants seem somewhat baggy in the clutch -- but suffers from a supporting cast only occasionally on the button. The "On Your Toes" production number looks similarly diffuse. The comic "Princess Zenobia" ballet, in which De La Pena dances a sendup of Nijinski -- pouncing on a pile of cushions before getting hoisted out of a window -- is more effective, and funny to boot.
Still, this is a show with 1930s' sensibilities -- mild and undemanding by the lights of the current depression. "We have staged it as an up-to-date review for 1936," Junior Dolan tells the ballet master and patron on their visit to his music class. It's one of the lines that get a chuckle from the Opera House audience -- who by this time must feel a little like Busby Berkley extras. ON YOUR TOES -- At the Kennedy Center's Opera House through January 16.