High Button Shoes
Before there was Harold Hill, there was Harrison Floy, the snake oil salesman (yes! actual snake oil!) of High Button Shoes. Set in 1913, the musical follows Floy back to his hometown, where he has chosen to retreat after being run out of every other town he's set foot in. The good people of New Brunswick, New Jersey, welcome Floy with open arms and, unfortunately for them, open wallets.
The quaint script has Floy conning the populace with everything from a fake deal on a Model T to a land swindle. At a smaller level, he also secretly slips brass knuckles into a fist fight and charms a ladies' birdwatching society with the use of a bird call whistle. This might have been a nostalgic hoot when High Button Shoes opened in 1947, but there is a limit to its comic potential in 2002. What the material needs to really ignite it is a bigger-than-life personality playing Floy, and, in the concert version currently playing at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, it has one, in the shape of Los Angeles theatre favorite Jason Graae.
Graae works the script for all it's worth, finding humor in the lines and finding even more when he departs from them. In the role originally played by comedian Phil Silvers, Graae is encouraged to make his own fun, and he succeeds brilliantly. Indeed, at the performance reviewed, the biggest laugh in the show came from a perfectly timed, and still in character, remark to a guy sleeping in the front row. But Graae is not just about getting laughs. When he is called upon to turn on the charm, he takes his straw hat in hand, drops to a knee, and lets loose a surprisingly earnest tenor, easily capable of serenading the entire female population of New Brunswick.
But the lady Floy has to woo (because she's innocently holding the bag of money from his latest scam) is the lovely, and slightly dim, Fran. Fran is here played by Susan Egan, whose clear, sweet voice does not have nearly enough appearances in the show. The rest of the company ranges from the very good - such as husband and wife team Jim Alexander and Cindy Robinson, who perform a delightful comic tango - to the somewhat uneven. For some castmembers, the concert version's focus on songs has resulted in a complete lack of attention to the book, with their book scenes sounding as though they are being read for the very first time.
This is not a big production. The pre-curtain announcement explains the show was put together with one week of rehearsal time, and the entire company (with the impressive exception of Gregg Whitney as Fran's boyfriend) is holding scripts for the duration. There are no sets at all, costumes are minimal, and the band consists of two keyboard players and a drummer. This has some amusing results. "On A Sunday By The Sea" celebrates bathing beauties with a cast that is fully clothed; "There's Nothing Like a Model 'T'" is performed without a vehicle; and the twenty-minute Jerome Robbins "Keystone Ballet" has been abridged to a mere fraction of its length. But this production revels in its limited resources, earning laughs by pointed references to the show's shoestring budget.
This is a small but good company having a great deal of fun with a Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn score you don't hear every day. This is is also a chance to see perennial scene stealer Graae get handed an entire show and walk off with it. It's about the only thing Floy gets away with.
Rubicon Theatre Company, Bill and Elise Kearney, AccuList USA, Buenaventura Medical Group, presents High Button Shoes. Music by Jule Styne; Lyrics by Sammy Cohn; Book by Stephen Longstreet. Musical Direction David Potter; Choreography Cindy Robinson; Lighting Design Kathi O'Donohue; Directed by Bonnie Hellman.
Cast (in alphabetical order):
High Button Shoes plays at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura through June 2, 2002. Call (805) 667-2900, or click www.rubicontheatre.org for more information.