BWW Review: Encores! Has Michael Urie and Kevin Chamberlin As A Pair of Clowning Con Men in HIGH BUTTON SHOES
That crazy cacophony of choreographic chaos that careens across the City Center stage shortly after the commencement of Act II is the main reason for Encores! to bring back the smash hit 1947 musical comedy High Button Shoes.
It was the madcap mayhem of the Mack Sennett-inspired "Bathing Beauty Ballet" that nailed that season's Best Choreography Tony Award for Jerome Robbins. Setup by the premise that a pair of con men have run off to Atlantic City's boardwalk with a bag full of ill-gotten greenbacks, a squad of Keystone Cops are hot on their trail in a chase scene that imitates the leaps and spills of silent movie classics, incorporating a bevy of bathing beauties, a muscle-bound lifeguard, two sets of identical twins, a row of changing room doors that provide quick escapes and surprise entrances, an Offenbach can-can, a snippet of Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody and, of course, a gorilla.
Encores! choreographer Sarah O'Gleby stages Robbin's creation and the talented company of dancing comedians brings down the house.
And though it's a golden moment from Broadway's Golden Age, High Button Shoes, despite its impressive run of 727 performances and post-Broadway popularity on tour, on the West End and in subsequent regional revivals, is not exactly a forgotten gem. It is, however, a great example of the type of star vehicle shows that remained popular on post-OKLAHOMA! Broadway as post-war audiences sought after escapist fun, and for that reason it's a worthy selection for Encores! to explore.
Set in 1913 New Brunswick, New Jersey, the story of a fast-talking trickster who comes to town with a shady real estate scheme was taken from novelist Stephen Longstreet's loosely autobiographical, "The Sisters Liked Them Handsome," published the year before the musical opened.
The score provided Broadway debuts for both composer Jule Styne and lyricist Sammy Cahn, and the two most enduring selections were the rousing polka, "Papa, Won't You Dance With Me?" and the soft-shoe "I Still Get Jealous," both performed by established musical comedy stars Nanette Fabray and Jack McCauley as Mama and Papa Longstreet. The rest is a pleasant, though not especially distinguished collection of generic ballads and novelty numbers, including a sales pitch for Model T Fords, a lesson in marrying for financial security, and a spoof of college football fight songs called, "Nobody Ever Died For Dear Old Rutgers." ("You can get a little black and blue / But nobody ever died for Rutgers U.") Rob Berman conducts the 27 piece on-stage orchestra playing Phillip Lang's original orchestrations.
Top billing went to Phil Silvers, playing his first starring role on Broadway. The comical con man antics he perfected in burlesque made him a perfect choice for Longstreet's Harrison Floy, especially with the character's sidekick, Mr. Pontdue, played by beloved burlesque second banana Joey Faye.
Though Longstreet retained credit for authoring the musical's book (Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel supplies the concert adaptation) it's a well-known secret that musical comedy genius George Abbott, who directed the Broadway production, considerably revised it and that Silvers pretty much supplied his own comedy routines.
So Encores! star Michael Urie takes on the formidable task of playing a comedy role a great Broadway comic wrote for himself, tailored to his own style. Urie is indeed a charismatic performer and proved with his Off-Broadway star turn in Red Bull's THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR that he's quite adept at old-school physical comedy, but director John Rando has him mimicking Silvers - the brash Brooklyn moxie, the mock-honied voice that can suddenly explode into a bellow and the trademark glasses - and, at least on opening night, it didn't seem a comfortable fit. Part of the problem is that Silvers didn't necessarily say funny things. He said things funny. So the script isn't exactly loaded with wit.
Of course, Encores! rehearses on a rushed schedule and opening night was just the company's second time in front of an audience, so the laughs may be found by the time the short run is over. Nevertheless, Urie jumps in with gusto and his effort is to be admired.
Fortunately, Kevin Chamberlin, a big man with a lovably goofy manner, isn't asked to imitate the eccentrically giddy style of Joey Faye as Mr. Pontdue, but even for a skilled comic talent like him, it's tough to get a contemporary audience to laugh at bits like disguising himself as a Russian and quipping, "I had a couple of beers on Saturday night and I fell down the Steppes."
Betsy Wolfe belts out her numbers and dances with verve as Mama, and while Chester Gregory's Papa is a low-key foil for most of the evening, the two are quite charming together as they dance to the evening's second Robbins recreation, the lightly vaudevillian "I Still Get Jealous."
As a lovestruck football star, Marc Koeck croons his ballads with a sweet Texas drawl to endearing ingenue Carla Duren, and Matt Loehr and Mylinda Hull get some good laughs as a pair who dance a tango because... well, because it's a 1947 musical comedy and why not?