A Jerome Robbins Re-creation Is the Only Highlight of High Button Shoes
The only reason to see the New York City Center Encores! production of Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn's High Button Shoes comes early in the second act. Until that moment, John Rando's production of this 1947 tuner lurches from tepid to tiresome: an assortment of enthusiastic actors lost in a sea of passé jokes and just-OK songs. And then, about 10 minutes after intermission, something happens that allows you to finally remember the gloriousness of musical comedy from yesteryear, when it all comes together for 10 or so fleeting minutes of heaven.
That moment is called the "Bathing Beauty Ballet," and it's a top-to-bottom re-creation of choreography that won Jerome Robbins his first of five Tony Awards. It doesn't matter what precipitates the sequence — that's how much the show and production lack consequence — but it's a wholly unforgettable, Mack Sennett-inspired slapstick chase between a con man, seven cops, three robbers, a lifeguard, a large gorilla, and several bathing beauties throughout Atlantic City circa 1913. It is an antic delight, and I would encourage any musical theater aficionado to see it. I'd also encourage Encores! to just present this sequence and cut the rest of the show.
With a score by Styne and Cahn, and a book by Stephen Longstreet (with doctoring by original director George Abbott), High Button Shoes finds two con men, Harrison Floy (Michael Urie) and Mr. Pontdue (Kevin Chamberlin) trying to fleece an upstanding New Jersey town out of the profits from a land deal. When they flee from New Brunswick to Atlantic City, Mama (Betsy Wolfe) and Papa (Chester Gregory) summon the Keystone Kops in an attempt to retrieve Floy's ill-gotten booty.
As ever, the sets (Allen Moyer), costumes (Ann Hould-Ward), and lighting (Ken Billington) are appealing in that rich and airy Encores! way, and Rob Berman's orchestra, playing Philip Lang's orchestrations, is traditionally superb. But Rando's staging is, in a word, rudderless. The jokes land with a thud, the pacing is lugubrious, and the whole thing has a very strange aura of melancholy about it. The production just isn't ready for prime time, and that extends to the actors, who are still making small rehearsal room choices in one of New York City's largest auditoriums. While choreographer Sarah O'Gleby stages some very nice dances, they all pale in comparison with the Robbins re-creations.
High Button Shoes puts a cap on a surprisingly downbeat season for Encores!, which was supposed to celebrate the rich history of New York City Center upon its 75th anniversary, but provided a cumulatively underpowered tribute at best. Let's hope next season proves more encouraging.