Review of Encores! High Button Shoes at New York City Center

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    May 13, 2019
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    At this point, especially where this spring has been concerned, returning audiences should be used to the formula for an Encores! selected show: A gossamer-thin plot, a charming but forgettable score, and dialogue that may fail to land even with New York City Center’s chief demographic of the affluent, elderly, and Caucasian. Still, as a reputable series with City Center’s resources, Encores! does its best with a consistently dazzling orchestra, a talented bill of stars, and the best dancers in showbiz. What results is often a very finely polished antiquity with one or two redemptive qualities.

    Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s High Button Shoes is this formula at its most underwhelming—a proper finale to a tepid season of Encores!. Michael Urie and Kevin Chamberlin portray two conmen who pull a Music Man on a New Jersey town via a real estate scam. Betsy Wolfe and Chester Gregory are Mama and Papa Longstreet, local residents cheated by the pair, and Carla Duren’s Fran shares a romantic subplot with Marc Koeck’s Oggle. Somewhere in between, there’s a football game, a meeting of the birdwatchers’ association, and about as many song-and-dance plot detours as can be expected from postwar escapist entertainment.

    But with no timeless standards, the score falls flat, and even at its best with the upbeat “Papa, Won’t You Dance With Me” (an effervescent Wolfe giving her all), it comes off as silly and dated. It’s in the music’s more tender moments such as “I Still Get Jealous” and the duets between Oggle and Fran that one feels a semblance of heart.

    Urie, a talented comic, is a high-strung fast-pitcher reminiscent of the show’s original Phil Silvers. Chamberlin, an endearing second, steals the show briefly with every “I’ll take two!”. Duren’s brilliant soprano felt hardly burdened by her character’s lack of agency.

    The lifeline of the show, in classic Encores! tradition, is its dance. The 75th anniversary series celebrates City Center’s relationship to the legendary Jerome Robbins, and choreographer Sarah O’Gleby has successfully recaptured the crown jewel of “Shoes: The Bathing Beauty Ballet,“ a delightfully frenzied sequence teeming with Mack Sennett-esque silent film slapstick humor. Much credit is owed also to the bright colors and bold patterns of Allen Moyer’s sets and Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes. That this showstopper can be presented on its own with no context is what worked so well about last year’s Hey, Look Me Over. The disconnected nature of these old musicals means Encores! can cherry-pick the best within them, or it can polish and present them as a whole, and leave to audiences the enjoyment.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "Were you left feeling chafed by those harsh, hot winds sweeping through this season’s revisionist, Tony-nominated production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!? Are you longing for a revival that lets a cheerful old American musical remain its cheerful old self, with any inner darkness undisclosed? Theatergoers of this mind may well find solace in the twinkly High Button Shoes, a nearly forgotten frolic from the late-1940s that is occupying New York City Center this weekend, with a cast led by the indefatigable Michael Urie. The last of this season’s Encores! musicals in concert has the approximate fizz and flavor of a vanilla egg cream."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Is there anything that can bring a bigger smile to your face than a dancing gorilla? Or, more accurately, a person in a gorilla suit hoofing it up in an over-the-top dance number that involves nearly two dozen performers chasing each other in and out of nine slamming doors in a Keystone Cops-like whirlwind of frenetic energy? The “Bathing Beauty Ballet” near the top of Act 2 of “High Button Shoes,” a classic 1947 musical comedy that opened on Wednesday as part of New York City Center’s Encores! revival series, is indeed a show-stopper, choreographed to well-timed perfection by Sarah O’Gleby (in homage to the great Jerome Robbins’ original work). Would that the rest of the production had such verve — because it would help to paper over a show that’s about as substantial as cotton candy, dissipating almost the moment you taste it."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap