Terrific Cast Makes “Fingers and Toes” Tingle

By Geary Danihy

There are times when you like a show but wish you could like it just a bit more. Such is the case with “Fingers and Toes,” a lighthearted, three-character musical comedy that recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse. The musical, with book, music and lyrics by Logan Medland (who was in attendance at the opening performance), directed by Robert Moss and choreographed by David Wanstreet, is a take on the old Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies, with a nod to several of the “Let’s put on a show” films that starred Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. As such, it is formulaic, and the formula still works...to an extent. Although there’s a lot to enjoy in the evening, you come away feeling that it could have been just a tad more satisfying.

First, what is satisfying. That’s easy: the cast. No matter what’s going on up on the stage you can’t help but respond to the three actors. There’s Rick Faugno as Dustin “Toes” McGrath, a song and dance man with a lust for the ladies and an embittered outlook on love (he’s nursing a broken heart). Then there’s Joyce Chittick as Molly Molloy, a farm girl transplanted to the big city with dreams of Broadway stardom tarnished by casting-couch reality. Finally, there’s Aaron Berk as Tristan “Fingers” St. Claire, a composer who’s blocked because his wife, an over-the-hill Russian ballerina, has just dumped him. The three meet up, circa 1939, in the now deserted Ziegfield Roof Theater in the Big Apple, where St. Claire has taken up residence, the location’s feel of abandonment nicely captured by scenic designer Daniel Nischan. For various reasons, the three decide to create a musical -- in just two weeks.

Most of the two-act show consists of the three coming up with and trying out various numbers for the show, which is about various “takes” on love. Of course, the three characters know little about actual love but...they will learn. Between the numbers there’s the plot development of “Fingers” coming to terms with his divorce and Molly and “Toes” eventually realizing they love each other -- all standard stuff for the sub-genre -- as well as some snappy dialogue (bearing a lot of theatrical and cinematic allusions) and a bit of tomfoolery and vaudvillesque sight gags.

The pleasure is in watching these three actors take on and bring to life what can only be considered stereotypes. It doesn’t hurt that Faugno, who bears a passing resemblance, in both physical features and stature, to Gene Kelly, can dance up a storm and has a great voice, nor does it hurt that Chittick -- think Bernadette Peters with just a touch of Betty Boop -- can keep up with him step for step and can effortlessly (or so she makes it seem) hit the high notes, or that Berk plays a mean piano. Stereotypical though their characters may be, the interaction between the three actors is worth the price of admission. They all know what they are supposed to deliver and do so with apparent ease and delight. Stylish, professional performances all around.

So, why did I come away wishing I could warm up to the show just a bit more? Well, the first has to do with the script -- and pacing. The first act runs well over an hour, and although there are some nifty numbers and nice bantering between the three actors (and, yes, some cornball stuff, too, but the audience seemed to like it), the first act seems to drag at times, with exposition extended beyond what the audience requires and certain scenes -- mainly consisting of dialogue -- lasting just a tad too long, giving the audience time to think, and you can’t do that in a show like this, since the logic behind it is tissue-paper thin. As soon as you give the audience members a chance to say to themselves -- “Gee, that really doesn’t make any sense” (did any of the Astaire/Rogers films really “make sense?”) -- you’ve broken the spell that a show like this must maintain; you’ve allowed the curtain to be pulled back to reveal the Wizard.

Then there are the numbers themselves, both the songs and the choreography. Here’s the rub: Medland, and choreographer Wanstreet, have chosen to reference many iconic films and Broadway shows, and in doing so, perhaps unintentionally but inevitably, evoke memories of those shows in the minds of those watching, which can’t help but lead to comparison. Hence, the songs, though tuneful, simply don’t compare to the songs Astaire/Rogers and Rooney/Garland were given to sing, songs by some of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, songs that are enshrined in the American Songbook. Although I heard a lot of affirmative comments from the exiting audience, I didn’t hear anyone humming a tune from the show.

The same problem arises with some of Wanstreet’s choreography. At one point, Faugno does a number dancing with a coat rack -- he does a very nice job, but as soon as he grabs that rack an image of Astaire in “Royal Wedding” comes to mind, and as good as Faugno is, he’s not Astaire (nor should he be). Surely there could have been another choice for a “partner” that would not have compelled the comparison. Then, later on in the show, when Molly has apparently rejected “Toes,” Faugno does a powerful “frustration” tap dance, but again, comparisons arise -- this time two: Gene Kelly’s marvelous “newspaper” dance in “Summer Stock” and the signature “frustration” dance scene in “Billy Elliot.” You might well ask, “Well, who would know?” This show is geared towards an audience of a certain age -- hence the references to “Oklahoma,” “Singing in the Rain” and “...bewitched, bothered and bewildered,” all of which the audience “got.” This audience definitely remembers Astaire and Kelly.

I guess it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation -- the creative team wanted to capture an era, and the team has, but in doing so the bar is often set very high -- perhaps too high.

All that being said, “Fingers and Toes” is certainly worth the trip out to Ivoryton, if only to enjoy the talent of the actors up there on the stage. Perhaps it’s like eating a Chinese dinner -- an hour after finishing you suddenly find yourself hungry, but while you were eating you were more than satisfied.

“Fingers and Toes” runs through June 22. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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