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'On Your Toes'

Music, Lyrics, and Book:  Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and George Abbott; Choreography: Adam Cooper

by Lyndsey Winship

August 14, 2003 -- Royal Festival Hall, London

It is testament to the gap between the world onstage and off that the only genuine Russian in this show, Irek Mukhamedov, is the one who sounds like he’s faking it. As any performer knows, being ‘real’ on stage isn’t enough, it takes some extra sparkle to transport the audience into your fantasy land. And considering the weak plot and songs of this show you’d need a crateful of fireworks.

It’s the story of a vaudeville hoofer (Adam Cooper) who packs up his tap shoes to become a music professor but finds himself back in the dance world when one of his students writes a jazz ballet for the Russian ballet. There’s a cold war tussle between the traditional soviets and the hip young Yanks and a romantic muddle for Cooper who must choose between his wholesome American girl (Anna-Jane Casey) and a flighty Russian prima ballerina (Sarah Wildor).

The musical incorporates two ‘shows within a show,’ one at the end of each act – a Fokine pastiche and an edgy modern ballet set in a seedy jazz age strip joint. The ballet-meets-musical is an interesting idea, but along with some of Rodgers and Hart’s less memorable songs, the format only serves to undermine the drama.

It goes without saying that all musical theatre plots are far fetched, but they work because of the conviction among the characters. We can feel the passion and the motivation for people’s actions. In the second act of "On Your Toes" the idea of a coherent plot is pretty much thrown away and the climactic moment turns out to be a very damp squib.

Nevertheless, the show is fun and full of quality components; the costumes, the sets and lighting (which do a dance of their own), the orchestra and the company are all great. And it’s the dancing, choreographed by Cooper himself, that we’ve really come to see. It has a hint of Jerome Robbins and a whole lot of Fred Astaire and there’s some dazzling tap, especially from Cooper whose long loose limbs make him a great hoofer. Throwing himself around the stage with abandon, he’s clearly enjoying the freedom of his role and the chance to be a showman.

The ‘Russian ballet,’ "Princess Zenobia," in act one will be a dose of déja vu for anyone who recently saw the Kirov do "Scheherazade," while the Balanchine mini ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" in act two gives Cooper and Wildor as a couple a chance to show off. They are great together – as you’d expect – he is cool and masterful, she is lithe and coquettish.

Wildor’s earlier pas de deux with Mukhamedov is equally effortless and they play it for laughs in the way only truly assured dancers can. There’s plenty of humour, although the actual jokes are lame it’s all very tongue in cheek but there’s a great moment when a group of bellboys wheel in the girls on luggage trolleys.

In keeping with national stereotypes the Russian dancers don’t have a sense of humour. When they first take up their jazz ballet steps the ensemble is messy and seems to have trouble keeping up with the tempo. I can’t work out whether this is intentional, whether I’m watching characters or dancers, and it’s this confusion that stops the show from igniting.

However, there’s no doubt that we’re firmly in theatreland when Kathryn Evans purrs and prowls her way through ‘You Took Advantage of Me.’ She’s a real Broadway broad and for the first time in the show she takes us somewhere with a song and effortlessly commands the audience’s attention. Actress Anna-Jane Casey’s sweet songbird rendition of ‘Glad to be Unhappy’ also deserves a mention. For the record, Cooper’s singing is unexpectedly good but it’s his dancing that he’s famous for and quite rightly so.

As other critics have commented, this show is lacking in fizz – I was desperate for someone to shake up the bottle. Part of the problem is that the Festival Hall just doesn’t suit musical theatre. The production of "Follies" here had the same shortcomings. The venue saps the atmosphere, and in order to turn "On Your Toes" from a pleasant moving picture into a real theatrical experience, atmosphere is the crucial ingredient.

 

Edited by Jeff.

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