"High Button Shoes"
Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam
“High Button Shoes,” the 1940s Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn-Jerome Robbins musical now in revival at Goodspeed, takes a long time (in fact, not until after intermission) to get off the ground. But a dazzling second act makes the wait worth while.
The fact is that the show is a piece of fluff, workable only if it has a strong comic lead. The show is set in pre-World War I America, when tandem bicycles, bird-watching, and country picnics were a source of innocent joy. The story deals with one Harrison Floy and his partner-in-crime Pierre Pontdue, who turn their skills at fleecing to any open opportunity. Returning to New Brunswick, New Jersey (Floy’s home town), Floy hopes to make a large killing, turn respectable, and marry the local beauty.
In its 1947 Broadway debut, with Phil Silvers in the lead, the show was highly successful. This type of musical had its place in the ‘40s. But this current Goodspeed production, lacking a Phil Silvers, falters sadly. The miscast Stephen Bienske, playing the con man, is more leading man type than comic. One never believes in his Harrison Floy persona, thus leaving a black hole in the very center of “High Button Shoes.” Bienske has his best moment when his hat accidentally (we assume) flies into the audience, and he turns the moment into ad lib exchanges. In the supporting cast, Ken Jennings (Pontdue) turns in a competent performance, as do William Parry, Brian Hissong, and Russell Arden Koplin. Jennifer Allen, playing the duped Mrs. Longstreet, is a strong stage presence, as is the 11-year-old Emmett Rahn-Oakes who plays her son.
Solid cast notwithstanding, the show stumbles through the first act, with disappointing songs (saved only by a spirited “Papa Won’t You Dance With Me”) number. But Gregory Gale’s hilarious costumes, Howard Chrisman Jones’ engaging set designs, and Michael O’Flaherty’s musical direction do much to keep the show afloat.
But, amazingly, the show really takes off in the second act, with a marvelous number staged on the Atlantic City boardwalk. It is here that the vision of director Greg Ganakas and the choreography of Linda Goodrich shine. Using a farce technique wedded to the musical, with moments under water and other moments in and out of bath cabanas (the Keystone Kops in chase), the show literally explodes.
From Atlantic City on, the show comes into its own, with excellent dance numbers and charming songs. (“I Still Get Jealous” is introduced and “Papa Won’t You Dance With Me” is repeated.)
But why must we wait until the second act to reach this point of excellence? Fortunately, the Goodspeed is always saved by its own mise en scene—drinks on the terrace, the Connecticut River view, and, always, the incomparable theater itself.
-- Irene Backalenick
Aug. 27, 2005