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Get On Your Toes and head for the Festival Hall!



Review by David Munro

IN 1934 Rodgers and Hart, while in Hollywood writing the score for Mississippi, a film to star W.C. Fields and Lanny Ross (replaced by Bing Crosby), read in the trade papers that RKO, having just completed The Gay Divorcee, were looking for another vehicle for its stars, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

It occurred to R. and H. that, although Astaire was famous as a tap and ballroom dancer, he might be receptive to an idea which enabled him to extend his talents and so came up with a plot about a song and dance man who composes and performs a modern ballet with a classical ballet troupe in the course of which Fred would become involved with a ballerina before returning to the girl he really loved.

They called it On Your Toes and wrote a two-page scenario, which they showed, to Astaire who was initially receptive but ultimately turned it down, as the role did not allow him to wear his trademark top hat white tie and tails.

The fact that no bones were broken over this episode is evidenced by the tribute to Astaire in the title number of the subsequent show (The dancing crowds - look up to some rare male - like that Astaire male).

On returning to New York, they started to develop the plot with Ray Bolger in mind, and when it was half written, Lee Shubert, an American producer, took an option on it but never exercised it.

Rodgers and Hart, in the meanwhile, became involved with another show, Jumbo, and after its success, and the lapse of Schubert's option, On Your Toes was resuscitated and, with a rewritten book by George Abbott and directed by him, it opened in New York in April 1936, where it ran for 315 performances.

It was subsequently (1939) made into a film with Eddie Albert, shorn of most of the score, and revived unsuccessfully in New York in 1954.

The first English production, in 1937, was a failure, despite excellent reviews, and it was not until the acclaimed 1983 New York revival came to London, in 1984, that it achieved the success in Britain it deserved.

The current revival at the Festival Hall is the first English production since 1984.

It comes to London, via Leicester, under the direction of Paul Kerryson, and choreographed by Adam Cooper, who also plays the lead role of 'Junior' Dolan.

Adam Cooper is first and foremost a classical dancer, but this essay into the realms of musical comedy shows that classical training is no hindrance to modern dance and tap.

He sings and acts as well as most jeune premieres to be seen today and, apart from the crucial Slaughter on Tenth Avenue ballet, his choreography is faultless and, at times, brilliant.

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, though, somehow lacks any sparkle, the reason for which seems to emanate from the two lead dancers, Cooper and Sarah Wildor, whom, despite, or perhaps because of the fact they are married, fail to establish the rapport the ballet requires.

This is a pity for the rest of the show is brilliant and Sarah Wildor is amusing and effective as the temperamental ballerina Vera Baronova Junior falls for and their scenes together show none of the lack of rapport which mars the final ballet.

As Frankie, the girl in love with Junior, Anna-Jane Casey sings well and manages to hold her own in the dance duets with Cooper, which is no mean feat.

Kathryn Evans and Russell Dixon, as Peggy Porterfield, the backer, and Sergei Alexandrovich, the impresario of the classical ballet company, provide comedy relief although at the performance I attended their duet - Too Good For The Average Man - had been cut. I suspect because it was too good for the audience, the majority of whom appeared old enough to have seen the original production.

The male lead of the ballet company was played and danced by Irek Mukhamedov, with Slavic verve and villainy.

The chorus singing and dancing proved that at last the standard of the British musical is as high as that of the American.

The title number, which is a balletic duel between classical and modern dancing, was one of the best sequences I have ever seen, both for its precision and style. Some credit must go, of course, to Cooper, wearing his choreographic hat, but the excellence of the number was ultimately due to the talented dancers he employed.

The direction, too, was fluid and balletic, from the opening procession of characters during the overture, to the final ballet, as one has come to expect from Paul Kerryson.

The use of large moving screens enabled the scenes to meld together seamlessly. He was ably abetted by his designer, Paul Farnsworth, who dressed the large stage with the minimum of furniture and props, yet, at the same time, disguising the vastness of the Festival Hall stage.

The Orchestra overcame any acoustical problems, under the direction of Julian Kelly, and played with gusto giving the score sparkle and charm.

Save for the final ballet (which was only disappointing in that what had preceded
it was so good and professional) this production was as near perfect as one could have wished.

It certainly did not show its age and seemed as fresh, and new minted, as it must have done in 1936.

London should be grateful to Raymond Gubbay for giving it the chance to enjoy it and I only wish that it's run was longer so that one could revisit it in the future.

Certainly, I would advise anyone who enjoys good theatre and musicals to go before September 6, when it must perforce close. So, get on your toes and run to the South Bank before it is too late.

On Your Toes a musical comedy with book by Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and George Abbott; music by Mr Rodgers and lyrics by Mr Hart. Directed by Paul Kerryson, Designed by Paul Farnsworth, Costumes by Paul Farnsworth, Choreography by Adam Cooper, Lighting by Chris Ellis, Sound by Simon Baker and Terry Jardine, Conducted by Julian Kelly. WITH: Adam Cooper, Sarah Wildor, Irek Mukhamedov, Greg Pichery, Gabrielle Noble, Mathew Malthouse, Simon Coulthard, Anna-Jane Casey, Juliet Gough, Kathryn Evans, Russell Dixon, Ewan Wardrop, Lucie Banfield, Richard Curto, Alistair David, Mike Denman, Kathryn Dunn, Natalie Edwards, Ben Garner, Julia Hinchcliffe, Benny Maslov, Lisa O'Hare, Oriada, Pippa Raine. Produced by Raymond Gubbay and the South Bank Centre in association with the Leicester Haymarket Theatre at the Royal Festival Hall, South Bank. Tickets 020 7960 4242.

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