A wacky and corny Broadway musical from 1947, “High Button Shoes” has been given a revival (May 8-12) that offered many pleasures in the New York City Center Encores! tradition of trying to recap what that show must have been like in its time. The plot, set in 1913, is a stretch but enjoyable performances, colorful and amusing costumes, the Encores! Orchestra and a reprise of some original choreography by Jerome Robbins made it fun to watch as the final selection in City Center’s 75th anniversary season. The elaborate concert-style production made clear why the show would have had a long Broadway run of 727 performances.
“High Button Shoes” was a collaboration that included music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sammy Cahn, book by Stephen Longstreet and choreography by Robbins. Two of Robbins’ numbers appeared as originally done in the Encores! presentation under the overall choreography of Sarah O’Gleby-- “Bathing Beauty Ballet” and “I Still Get Jealous.” Robbins’ ballet number was a rousing, spirited show-stopper set in Atlantic City including Keystone Kop horseplay, and Robbins’ jealousy number was a delicate romantic duo performed with panache by Chester Gregory and Betsy Wolfe as the New Brunswick, N.J. couple, Papa and Sarah Longstreet, targeted among others for fleecing by a con man.
In the Broadway show the con artist, Harrison Floy, was played by Phil Silvers. In the Encores! production, the part was done by Michael Urie. When Urie first appeared, with spectacles, a loud checkered suit and burlesque comedy mannerisms, he resembled Silvers. But as his frantic antics as the charlatan Floy escalated, Urie defined the portrayal as his own. He proved to be extremely funny in so many manic ways.
Having gone to Rutgers University, I was especially amused by some of the action revolving around the Rutgers football team and its annual game with Princeton. The romantic lead in the show is a Rutgers player, Oggle, who is in love with Fran, daughter of the Longstreets, played perkily by Carla Duren. She and Oggle (Marc Koeck) do some engaging singing together with “Can’t You Just See Yourself in Love with Me?” and “You’re My Girl.”
Comedy is added by the consistently funny performance of Kevin Chamberlin as Mr. Pontdue, Floy’s sidekick, who dons amusing costumes and helps with Floy’s schemes. The large ensemble is excellent and versatile, whether masquerading as dancing horses and cows, or when women show up in old-fashioned swim suits (costume design by Ann Hould Ward) and dance as Atlantic City bathing beauties.
Director John Rando captured the overall style effectively, keeping the show spinning at a lively pace. Rob Berman, veteran music director of Encores!, led the on-stage orchestra, a regular highlight of these Encores! performances. Twenty-seven musicians made the well-matched score come alive even though the musical didn’t yield durable hits.
At one pint Michael Urie as Floy led the male ensemble singing the Rutgers school song, “On the Banks of the Old Raritan.” I remember singing that anthem, which begins pretentiously, “My father sent me to dear old Rutgers and resolved that I should be a man.” I had a Professor George who would mock the song by jumping up on a desk, pointing to students around the room and shouting to each one “Did your father send you?”
I’m just citing a bit of personal nostalgia that helped me enjoy the “High Button Shoes” revival. I wish I could have seen the original, but this staging did the trick of reminding audiences what this slice of old-fashioned, zany fun of its era was all about. At New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street. Reviewed May 13, 2019.