EmptyUCLA Freud Playhouse, Westwood
Through Aug. 26
"On Your Toes" may not contain Richard Rodgers' best music or Lorenz Hart's best lyrics, but a new production at UCLA's Freud Playhouse captures in large and jaunty measure the glory of what Broadway was between the two World Wars. It also provides some great parts to performers who are willing and able to let it all hang out.
There's an awful lot of Broadway history wrapped up this 1936 hit which ran for 315 performances with a cast headed by Ray Bolger and choreographed by the legendary George Balanchine. Jazz, show and classical ballet elements were used both for the dances -- culminating in "Slaughter on 10th Avenue," which later became a ballet in its own right -- and the story line.
Unfortunately, Hart's lyrics are, for the most part, second-rate Cole Porter, and Rodgers' music is mostly forgettable. But no one seems to have told the generally excellent cast, led by the enormously talented Jeffrey Denman, who seem to be putting their heart and soul into every bar. Whether singing, dancing or acting, Denman, who looks just like 1930s and '40s band leader Kay Kyser (and generates as little chemistry with either of his two leading ladies), is a totally brilliant performer who commands the stage with every step he takes.
Denman's main squeeze, Beth Malone, has an appealing voice and winsome presence, but perhaps because of a bad hair night he looks more frumpy than is good for the plot. Like other mostly nondancing members of the cast, she also seems hampered by choreographer Lee Martino's lack of attention, moving with little confidence, often preferring not to move at all.
The dancer-actors who play the tempestuous Russian couple, Yvette Tucker (who was magnificent in the Pasadena Playhouse's recent revival of "Can-Can") and Jonathan Sharp, both dance brilliantly and are eager and charming if not polished actors. The actor-singers who play the impresario and the backer, Dan Butler and Stefanie Powers (seemingly lit from within by a spark of eternal youth), bring enormous class to their work including a totally wonderful "You Took Advantage of Me."
The decision to have Martino completely re-choreograph the show was a good one if not completely successful. Oddly, the classical-oriented dancing is more convincing, especially the big set piece ("La Princesse Zenobia") that closes the first half of the show. The "Slaughter" ballet, by contrast, lacks the kind of edgy dynamics that Busby Berkeley put into his "42nd Street" film of a few years earlier (and that must have been in Rodgers & Hart's mind if not Balanchine's). There are a lot of calisthenics, jumping on tables and pianos and other manic activity, but little sustained development. And Martino's designs are restrained by the cramped dimensions of the Freud Playhouse stage.
Which brings up the microphones. Not only is it always clear when a singer is being heavily miked (accompanied by artificial resonance), but the engineers controlling the sound often let the singers start their songs before getting the sound level right. The sound problem also affects the excellent orchestra, which sounds wiry and unpleasant at times.
RODGERS & HART'S ON YOUR TOES
Presented by Reprise! Broadway's Best
Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Lorenz Hart
Book: Rodgers & Hart and George Abbott
Director: Dan Mojica
Choreographer: Lee Martino
Music director: Gerald Sternbach
Set and lighting designer: Brett Banakis
Costume designer: Shon LeBlanc
Sound designer: Philip G. Allen
Orchestrations: Hans Spailek
Casting director: Julia Flores
Phil Dolan: Jeffrey Denman
Peggy Porterfield: Stefanie Powers
Sergei Alexandrovitch: Dan Butler
Frankie Frayne: Beth Malone
Vera Baronova: Yvette Tucker
Konstantine Morrosine: Jonathan Sharp
Sidney Cohn: Brett Ryback
Phil Dolan as a Boy: Quintan Craig
Phil Dolan's father: John Vaughan