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Off Broadway Reviews

High Button Shoes

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 8, 2019

High Button Shoes Ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus

High Button Shoes, composer Jule Styne's very first Broadway show, has not withstood the test of time in the seven decades since its initial run, at least not by the evidence of the deflated Encores! production that opened last night at New York City Center.

A hyper-animated Michael Urie stars in a role that seems tailor-made for his long ago predecessor, Phil Silvers, that of a hustler and conman who sets out to swindle the folks of New Brunswick, New Jersey after being run out of town in various other cities where he and his partner in crime (Kevin Chamberlain) pitched fake jewelry and snake oil to the gullible. Urie does his best here to sell us in the same manner, but despite all the charm he can muster, Silvers' checkered suit simply does not fit his shoulders.

The show, with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, also a Broadway novice, and a book by Stephen Longstreet (reworked at the time by its director George Abbott), has been adapted for this production by Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel. That it makes little sense as it careens from scene to disconnected scene is as gentle a way as I can put it. Under John Rando's direction, almost every flaw is emphasized, while the show's strengths (and there definitely are some) are downplayed, with the lone exception being a madcap Keystone Cops chase, a recreation of Jerome Robbins' "Bathing Beauty Ballet" at the top of Act II. And yes, the production's own choreographer Sarah O'Gleby has done a fine job in reproducing that number.

The rest of the dancing, and there is a lot of it, is a mishmash of styles, including another ballet that is reminiscent of "Appalachian Spring," though as if it had been choreographed by Agnes de Mille instead of Martha Graham. There's also a thoroughly absurd tango that is maniacally danced by Matt Loehr and Mylinda Hull, who, at least, seem to understand that they are engaged in nonsense and make the most of it, grandly playing off one another like Comden and Green performing one of their comic routines.

There are some very good songs scattered here and there, including "Can't You Just See Yourself in Love with Me?" and "You're My Girl." These two numbers are the only ones that fall into the good old-fashioned romantic musical comedy mode, and they are well-sung here by Marc Koeck and Carla Duren as the young romantic leads. But neither the toe-tapping "Papa, Won't You Dance With Me?" nor the appealing soft shoe tune "I Still Get Jealous," both of them performed by Betsy Wolfe and Chester Gregory, manage to soar. The rest of the cast try to rev things up with lots of frenzied mugging, but snake oil is still snake oil, no matter how you package it.

High Button Shoes
Through May 12
New York City Center Mainstage, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: