Although “On Your Toes,” the 1936 tuner about a hoofer’s wacky entry into the world of classical dance, boasts one of the sillier plots in the Rodgers and Hart canon, Reprise! is on its toes in pegging the big scenes and production numbers to one potent central idea — the fun that can ensue when American sizzle meets European style. Helmer Dan Mojica’s focus on that theme, along with outstanding casting and execution, results in one of the most sparkling and satisfying musical entertainments of the year.
A fusion of showbiz and les beaux arts is built into the main character, Junior Dolan (Jeffry Denman), your typical vaudeville headliner-turned-stiff-necked musicology professor equally at home with a buck ‘n’ wing and a pirouette. (You know the type.) For some reason, his main goal in life is the staging of a student’s jazz-influenced narrative about a doomed nightclub romance, to which end he exploits a connection between another student (Beth Malone) and the visiting Russian Ballet. (Happens all the time.)
This improbable role was originally tailored to the peculiar talents of Ray Bolger, but treetop-tall, lithe and likable Denman occupies it completely and even renders it believable. Beyond his peerless, effortless show dancing, his goofy innocence is an ideal foil for Yvette Tucker’s temperamental, libidinous prima ballerina — is there any other kind? — yet he’s sincere and restrained in his personal dealings with Malone, hopelessly devoted to a fella who doesn’t know she exists.
A long-necked, tart-tongued gamine, Malone possesses something of Barbara Cook’s ability to revitalize a familiar song through the acting art, notably an unforgettably ingenuous “Glad to Be Unhappy” heretofore best known through a Mamas & Papas cover. She and Denman reinvent score’s one true standard, “There’s a Small Hotel,” as a complex three-act play of flirtation, emotional realization and aching desire that makes you wish you never had to see any more musicals without Malone and Denman in them.
These ingenues capably carry the show’s acting demands, with Stefanie Powers sparking in act two (after an oddly listless first act; maybe she downs a Red Bull during intermission) as the wisecracking troupe fund-raiser who gets her way with both repertoire and impresario (Dan Butler). Their merry, sexy duet of the often-interpolated “You Took Advantage of Me” sets colored lights going long before designer Brett Banakis actually cues them up. (Note to Reprise!, or somebody: The lady has a perfect “Mame” in her.)
The Russian contingent’s shaky accents and swallowed punchlines are a likely byproduct of the time needed for Lee Martino’s choreography, but no regrets. Exceptional by any standard, show’s dance routines are positively mind-blowing given Reprise!’s two-week rehearsal period. They may lack some of the precision of an actual ongoing ballet troupe, but they’re second to none in inventiveness and commitment.
Martino and Mojica are of one mind in merging the modes that are the tuner’s subject. “Scheherezade” parody “Princesse Zenobia” is pleasingly faux-Balanchine as Tucker and partner (a too-preening but technically expert Jonathan Sharp) execute a blissful princess-and-pauper pas de deux until Junior stumbles in as an unlikely court slave, running riot with all the game desperation of Lucy Ricardo caught in one of Ricky’s nightclub acts.
“Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” Rodgers’ rightly acclaimed dance composition, is given a properly smoky American treatment, with Denman, Tucker and lighting man Banakis outdoing themselves in generating le jazz hot. Yet even here, a touch of the Ballets Russes is provided by the three cops who momentarily overwhelm a Gotham nitery with Kazakh muscle. (Nothing like a string of backflips to enliven a jazz ballet.)
Still, concept’s apotheosis arrives in neither ballet but in the arrival of six of the visiting corps de ballet to Junior’s WPA-sponsored music class. Prompted by Malone’s infectious delivery of the title tune, a challenge dance begins and builds, the classical dancers reluctantly, then gleefully leaping and spinning as the Americans swing ‘n’ sway like Sammy Kaye. Styles clash then mesh in a crescendo of delight, and but for Martino’s neglecting to parallel the homegrown kids’ brief stab at ballet with a couple of Russians doing a soft-shoe, unimprovably bring show’s theme to life.
Frankly, in a time when alien cultures are at each other’s throats, both show and number offer a reassuring reminder that there’s at least one source of joy common to all humanity, that which comes whenever and wherever folks dance.