August 4, 2007

(By guest blogger Bill): High Button Snooze

Just catching sight of the Goodspeed Opera House is enough to make me break into a grin. Perched on the east bank of the Connecticut River, in East Haddam, the gleaming white, 130-year-old Victorian playhouse seems to promise: "You're going to have a good time here today." I was particularly enthusiastic about my trip to the playhouse this week because the show I was going to see, High Button Shoes, was the first "nearly" Broadway production I ever saw. I say "nearly" because it was the national company, which my parents took me to in my hometown of Chicago when I was about eight years old, more years ago than I care to admit. I've long since forgotten everything about the show except that I loved it. Not this time.

has a score by a pair of musical icons-- composer Jule Styne and lyricist Sammy Cahn, frequent collaborators. The book is by the unknown (to me) Stephen Longstreet, based on his own novel, "The Sisters Liked Them Handsome." The Goodspeed program explains that Longstreet's libretto was much rewritten by the show's original director, the legendary George Abbott, and its star, Phil Silvers, who later achieved national fame as TV's Sgt. Bilko. Whoever did what, it worked: High Button Shoes had a Broadway run of 727 performances, quite a hefty number back in 1947-- for that matter, nothing to sneeze at today. For this revival, director Greg Ganakas and his collaborators have given the show a "revitalization" (Goodspeed's word), by tinkering with the book and making a few changes in the song selection and running order-- not unusual when reviving a 70-year-old musical. Unfortunately the Goodspeed Team wasn't able to revive one crucial element: Phil Silvers.

The story is pretty simple... and simple-minded. It's 1913, and two on-the-lam, wise-cracking con men (originally played by Silvers and the burlesque journeyman Joey Faye) have set down in picture-perfect New Brunswick, New Jersey. Their goal is to sell some swamp land (!) to the peaceable, unwary townsfolk, among whom are "Mama," "Papa," a trio of birdwatching biddies, an ingenue (of course) and a football-playing juvenile (New Brunswick is home to Rutgers University). In outline, Shoes is not dissimilar to The Music Man, except that Meredith Willson's music and lyrics are more distinguished in every way and his book is peopled with flesh-blood-characters, not cardboard stereotypes.

Two of Shoes' songs have had a life outside the show, and they just barely: the polka "Papa Won't You Dance with Me" and "I Still Get Jealous" (a precursor to the Hairspray duet "Timeless to Me"). (Jerome Robbins, who won a Tony for choreographing Shoes, included both in his 1989 revue, Jerome Robbins' Broadway.) Performed at Goodspeed by the appealingly low-key William Parry and the hearty, full-voiced Jennifer Allen, they still please. As does much of the rest of Goodspeed's production: Gregory Gale's costumes and Howard Chrisman Jones's sets have period charm, Linda Goodrich's choreography (though not of course up to the level of Robbins) is inventive and the eight-piece orchestra is, well, spiffy.

But without two slam-bang comics, the show doesn't pay off. And director Ganakas didn't find them. In the role that has Phil Silvers' glorious Bilko shtick written all over it, Stephen Bienskie is amiable and works hard-- too hard, really-- but he can't begin to hold-- let alone dominate-- the stage, as he must. As his sidekick, the equally hard-working Ken Jennings is... well, some people just aren't born funny. And that's what this show needs: two larger-than-life, leave-'em-rollin'-in-the-aisles born funnymen. While watching Shoes plod along, I couldn't help mentally trying to recast it: Nathan Lane, Lewis J. Stadlen, Jason Alexander, Nathan Lane... Whoops! There's the problem. There just aren't a lot of big, bold comics around these days. And without vaudeville or burlesque to hone their talents, we probably won't see many coming along.

I also couldn't help thinking: This is a show that not even City Center's Encores! series should do. The score simply doesn't merit it.

Over the past 45 years, Goodspeed Musicals has mounted a remarkable number of rousing productions, some of them original (Man of La Mancha, Shenandoah, Annie), some revivals (Very Good Eddie, She Loves Me, The Most Happy Fella). But High Button Shoes left me low.

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