Feeling depressed, demoralised or otherwise fed up? On Your Toes, the 1936 Rodgers & Hart classic, will raise your spirits right from the start and keep them there long after curtain-down. The story – about a nerdish music professor, Junior Dolan, who becomes entangled in the tantrums of a Russian ballet company – is about as realistic as our government's plans for the health service. But Rodgers's music lodges in your brain (especially the "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" melody), the sentiments approach human truths and the dialogue crackles. "Can a good man love two women at the same time?'' asks Junior worriedly, torn between the predatory ballerina Vera Baronova and the sweet music student Frankie Frayne. "Only if he's very good,'' answers his confidante, Peggy Porterfield.
George Balanchine's choreography for the original staging must also account for the musical's special place in balletomane hearts. So what do you do when you get rid of the Balanchine? You get other favourite ballet names – the heart-throb Adam Cooper, the Russian star Irek Mukhamedov and the former Royal Ballet principal Marguerite Porter. Watching ballet dancers out of context creates a frisson, like catching the Queen knitting or washing up. I never thought I'd see Porter dancing again, let alone hear her and Mukhamedov speaking lines. But Paul Kerryson's joyous production, marking Rodgers's centenary, is an occasion of débuts.
If you've ever wondered how good Adam Cooper's tap and jazz dancing are, or his singing, or his acting, or his choreography, now is your chance. Actually, he does have a broad-based stage training behind him, allowing him to tap a mean toe and sing in a pleasant baritone. But although ballet-goers have always known he has great dramatic conviction, his acting skills still come as a revelation, blending well-phrased, expressive diction with judicious body language and a real gift for comedy.
His American accent sounds pretty good, while others often veer phonily all over the place. Equally, his embarrassed, out-of-sync dancing for Junior's last-minute conscription into the Princesse Zenobia ballet causes not only catastrophic havoc in the stage unison, but total hilarity in the audience.
His choreography works well here and in "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue", although the latter doesn't deviate much from Balanchine, if my memory of Birmingham Royal Ballet's staging serves. I also suspect that he's been restricted by his dancers. Athletic rigours no longer come easily to Mukhamedov and Porter, but at least they have the excuse of age, which the ensemble dancers do not.
Porter acts capably as Vera Baronova, except that she lacks the vamp chromosome that made Natalia Makarova so memorable in the 1984 London run. Mukhamedov brings his familiar burly, macho humour to Konstantine Morrosine, leading dancer with a two-inch brain. Kathryn Evans's Peggy Porterfield is supremely believable; Russell Dixon makes a suitably Diaghilevian Sergei Alexandrovitch; and Linzi Hateley sings beautifully as the inherently drab Frankie.
Meanwhile, Paul Farnsworth's designs evoked period and place efficiently, if sparingly, and Julian Kelly conducts, head poking out of a lozenge-shaped pit cut out of the stage.
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