Review By Brian Scott Lipton
As with so many of City Center Encores!’ offerings over its past three decades, “High Button Shoes” is likely to lead to the whole “They don’t write them the way they used to/That’s just fine” conversation among many audience members. Indeed, our tastes in musicals have evolved so much over the past 70 years, it can be a little hard to understand why this 1947 romp ran for nearly two years. Still, that’s not to say there aren’t enough enjoyable moments in John Rando’s production to merit a visit if you keep your expectations in check.
The show’s featherweight plot revolves around Harrison Floy (Michael Urie), an amoral con artist who returns to his hometown of New Brunswick in 1913 with his slightly dimwitted partner Mr. Pontdue (a delightful if underused Kevin Chamberlain) to fleece the residents out of their savings. His main target is the Longstreet Family, especially once he learns that they have a sizable piece of land he can sell, and he puts on all his considerable charms to convince both the town and the family of his sincerity.
One of the biggest curiosities of the show is that Floy doesn’t do much of the singing. The role was created by the great Phil Silvers, who wasn’t exactly known for his mellifluous voice, and has now been handed to Urie, who once again proves to be a brilliant and inventive comic (often making the most of librettist Stephen Longstreet’s hoariest bits) and a passable singer. Without Urie as the center, almost nothing here would hold at all.
The big exception, of course, is the so-called “Bathing Beauty Ballet,” an early masterpiece by the show’s original choreographer Jerome Robbins (and restaged here by Sarah O’Gleby, who does fine work throughout) that combines slamming door farce, Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, and lots of hilarious physical business. The cast (including Urie) executes the second-act number beautifully, earning a well-deserved ovation.
As for the score, composer Jule Styne and lyricist Sammy Cahn expended all their efforts on numbers for the show’s secondary characters. The most successful of them, the infectious polka-flavored “Papa, Won’t You Dance with Me,” and “I Still Get Jealous” belong to the young Longstreet parents, Sara and Henry, who are played with extreme charm and grace by Betsy Wolfe and Chester Gregory. It’s certainly possible you may leave City Center humming those tunes.
Elsewhere, however, the team’s work is less-than stellar; there are a couple of extremely forgettable love duets for Sara’s younger sister Fran (a lovely Carla Duren) and hunky football star Oggie (the physically and vocally attractive Marc Koeck), an amusing comic tango well executed by Matt Loehr and Mylinda Hull, and a handful of pointless group numbers that seem like little more than mere padding, all made to sound a bit better than they are by Rob Berman and the Encores! orchestra.
In the long run, “High Button Shoes” won’t go down as a high mark in the history of musical theater — or even Encores! presentations – but I was happy to have a chance to see it.
Photos: Joan Marcus
“High Button Shoes” continues through Sunday, May 12 at New York City Center (131 West 55th Street). Call 212-581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org for tickets.