So many Broadway shows were vehicles for the particular talents and personalities of a small cadre of big stars: Ray Bolger/Where’s Charley?; Ethel Merman/Gypsy, Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam; Mary Martin/Peter Pan; Gwen Verdon/Sweet Charity, Chicago; and Carol Channing/Hello, Dolly.
So it was for the Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn-Steven Longstreet 1947 musical romp, High Button Shoes, just given a wonderfully energetic revival, part of the New York City Center Encores! series.
Originally tailored for the talents of Phil Silvers and Nanette Fabray—two stars who have faded from memory for those born after the baby boom generation—High Button Shoes may seem like a silly, lightweight precursor to The Music Man which has a similar plot involving an appealing confidence man who dupes an entire town.
But, fear not! The Encores! creative team—director John Rando, music director, Rob Berman and choreographer Sarah O’Gleby—found a terrific cast led by Michael Urie in the Phil Silvers’ role of Harrison Floy and Betsy Wolfe as (Mama) Sarah Longstreet, Nanette Fabray’s role (which featured the earworm ditty “Papa, Won’t You Dance With Me?”).
In addition to Ms. O’Gleby’s terpsichorean contributions, this staging included the additional bonus of two dances choreographed by Jerome Robbins (staged by Ms. O’Gleby) who won his first Tony for his contributions to this musical.
No offense to Ms. O’Gleby, but Robbins’ work was so detailed, musical and fun that it was clear that a genius was at work in the sensationally well-timed beach romp, “The Bathing Beauties Ballet” and the sweetly choreographed love poem, “I Still Get Jealous,” sung and danced by Ms. Wolfe and Chester Gregory, the “Papa” of the “Papa, Won’t You Dance With Me?” song title.
It’s 1913, years before America lost its innocence in the Great War. Harrison Floy (Mr. Urie, wonderfully wacky and slick) and his partner in crime, Mr. Pontdue (a delightful Kevin Chamberlin) try to sell phony diamonds, watches and even that cliché of clichés, snake oil, in various towns before being chased off by the cops, while a barbershop quartet sings the ironic “He Tried to Make a Dollar.”
Onward to New Brunswick, New Jersey where Floy weaseled his way into the Longstreet household where Sara (Wolfe, disappointingly not revealing all her voluptuous talents) is particularly entranced to the point of trying to foist Floy onto her daughter Fran (a sweet Carla Duren) who prefers the young football hunk, Oggle (Marc Koeck, singing well and acting thick with great humor, belying his good looks). Oggle does try to woo Fran with “Next to Texas I Love You,” not quite the height of romance. Floy does his best to entice Fran with “Can’t You See Yourself in Love with Me.” (To be fair to Oggle, he did sing a more romantic song, “You’re My Girl” to the receptive Fran.)
Floy proceeded to dupe the town folk out of deposits they put down on a new subdivision which turned out to be swampland, forcing him and Pontdue to flee to Atlantic City with all of New Brunswick in pursuit.
Hilarious chaos, straight out of a slapstick silent movie, ensued. The entire company raced in and out of colorful beach changing rooms (fine scenic contributions by Allen Moyer as well as period-perfect costumes by Ann Hould-Ward all brilliantly lit by veteran lighting designer Ken Billington). In a running gag, a bag full of the ill-gotten cash kept changing hands with breathtaking speed.
The plot of Shoes thickened when Oggle and the Rutgers Football team were drawn into Floy’s complicated and illegal exertions. “Nobody Ever Died for Dear Old Rutgers” tells that story.
The silly plot came to an end with happiness reigning supreme, sort of.
The Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn songs aren’t particularly memorable. Both did better work apart: Styne with his legendary Gypsy and Cahn with his partnership with Jimmy Van Heusen and Frank Sinatra. The score is perfectly matched with the old-fashioned plot.
The Encores! Orchestra, led by Berman was at its usual brilliant level playing Jack Viertel’s adaptation of Philip Lang’s original arrangements.
High Button Shoes (May 8-12, 2019)
New York City Center Encores!
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission