The musical theater has a new leading man to reckon with — not to mention hoofer and choreographer — in Adam Cooper, the ballet star now making his musical comedy debut in what also happens to be the balletomanes’ musical, Rodgers & Hart’s “On Your Toes.” Inextricably linked over the years with George Balanchine, who choreographed director George Abbott’s original production, “On Your Toes” follows the Trevor Nunn-Susan Stroman “Oklahoma!” as the second Rodgers musical of late to be reconceived in dance terms from scratch. Like Stroman before him, Cooper has jettisoned steps as allied to this show as Agnes de Mille’s moves once were to “Oklahoma!” And as if that weren’t enough, the 30-year-old Londoner has taken the leading male role in a perf so engaging and (literally) fleet of foot that it simply can’t remain the sole province of Leicester for long.
Cooper, of course, is best known for his Tony-nommed turn as the leather-clad swan of Matthew Bourne’s revisionist “Swan Lake,” which introduced the dancer to an American public. Crossing over into the world of song and dance, he adapts to the spoken word — and to detailed and delightful characterization — like, well, a swan to water. I’ve seen other first-rate Junior Dolans, the reined-in music teacher-turned-terpsichorean whiz who fuels this show (“My One and Only’s” current London lead, Tim Flavin, made his name in Britain’s last “On Your Toes,” opposite Natalia Makarova in 1984). But it’s hard to imagine anyone bettering the quiet charm of Cooper’s Clark Kent-like Junior, who needs only to shed his glasses to have his feet take wing, carrying the audience in his charismatic embrace. And he can speak, too! (As for Cooper’s light tenor, that presumably will fill out with time.)
A folksy sort, Junior is a beast of the ballet waiting to cut loose, and Cooper makes something deliciously teasing out of Junior’s shift out of academe and toward the murderous and fiery “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” that closes the show. Early in act one, his earnest face widens with pleasure as he tinkles a bit of “Slaughter” on the piano; not long after, briefly donning the dance shoes that family demands have made him put aside, Cooper hints at the Junior lying in wait prior to his last-minute induction into the “Zenobia Ballet,” this musical’s affectionate sendup of “Scheherazade.” (Buffs will enjoy picking off Cooper’s references to famous forebears, among them Fokine and MacMillan.)
Drafted in at the last minute to play a slave, this Junior darts hilariously among the rich folds of Paul Farnsworth’s set, which otherwise sticks to a Russian Constructivist aesthetic befitting a musical inspired by the visit to the U.S. of the Ballets Russes.
But Cooper isn’t the only performer whose every appearance prompts a grin. Playing Peggy Porterfield, manager of the visiting Russian dance company that ends up taking a flyer by putting Junior front and center, Kathryn Evans has a tart authority coupled with a voice that merits the inclusion into the score of “You Took Advantage of Me,” from an earlier Rodgers musical, the 1928 “Present Arms.” Irek Mukhamedov, a former colleague of Cooper’s at the Royal Ballet, cuts an amiable slice of bare-chested, self-satirizing ham as the libidinous Morrosine, while Linzi Hateley’s sweet-voiced Frankie Frayne makes an admirable case for schoolroom romance against the hurlyburly of the stage.
What about the putative star of any “On Your Toes” — that’s to say, the performer cast as Vera Baronova, a role originated by Tamara Geva, Balanchine’s wife? Faced with the unenviable task of displacing memories of Makarova, yet another Royal Ballet alum, Marguerite Porter, doesn’t come naturally by the temperament, accent or comedy required for the role. (Paging Sylvie Guillem, about the only Britain-based dancer one can imagine rivaling Makarova.) And because Porter’s presence isn’t particularly substantial, the dance highlight of Paul Kerryson’s production shifts away from an unusually modern “Slaughter” — gone is the frenzied tap finale that left Flavin drenched in sweat — to the title song, here conceived as an act of choreographic detente: American tappers vs. Russians in toe shoes, with the two merging into a rapturous whole.
That rapture elsewhere is somewhat more intermittent, which is perhaps to be expected from a female lead who makes her role seem far less crucial than it is. But let Julian Kelly’s ace band ripen the audience for pleasure, and Cooper does the rest, not least in a discussion as to whether Junior has ever felt passion. The priceless response: “Does now count?”