By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
When High Button Shoes premiered on Broadway in 1947, its name and 1913 setting conjured nostalgic images of more carefree days. Its title still brings to mind visions of a bygone era, and one yearns for the golden age of musical comedy when boy wooed girl through exhilarating dance numbers and toe-tapping songs that left patrons whistling. Inexplicably, after the Broadway and Chicago productions closed in 1949, the musical vanished from the theatrical horizon. Although the original played 727 performances and finished in the black, Theatre World's annual roundups of New York and regional productions don't list a single revival in its volumes covering 1950 to 1994.
Now, 50 years after its debut, High Button Shoes finally has its Florida premiere at Boca Raton's Royal Palm Dinner Theatre in a production reminiscent of a museum display: All the musical's charms are lovingly exhibited, but without any captivating performances to reanimate it, lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne's collaboration never springs back to life.
Not that there isn't plenty of razzle-dazzle in this tale of snake oil salesman Mr. Floy (Dan Kelley), who returns to his hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey, to fleece the locals. In one scam, he and his partner Mr. Pontdue (Don McArt) convince Henry (Jerry Gulledge) and his wife Sara (Jan McArt) that Floy's "good friend" Henry Ford is giving the couple a free car, singing "There's Nothing Like a Model T" as they roll a mock antique car onto the tiny theater-in-the-round stage. Later Floy tries to abscond with the money he has made by tricking townspeople into buying worthless swampland. He sweet-talks Sara's sister Fran (Chrissi Guastela-Ardito) into running away to Atlantic City with him -- and taking along the money she has been given for safekeeping -- by serenading her with the wonders of the world she'll see, sung to the accompaniment of chorus girls parading around under outrageous Ziegfeld Girl headdresses adorned with European landmarks.
And those numbers are just the setups for the musical's legendary "Bathing Beauty Ballet," which won a Tony Award for original choreographer Jerome Robbins and was restaged in Broadway's 1989 tribute Jerome Robbins' Broadway. More than Robbins's genius, however, Royal Palm choreographer Pam Atha needs Thomas Edison's inventiveness to cram the frenzied silent film salute into the theater's small space; she succeeds. Atha's peppy staging invests High Button Shoes with one of its few kicky moments: Keystone Kops pour from the aisles to chase Floy in and out of cabanas while Sara, Fran, and Henry innocently share the boardwalk with giggling sunbathers in bonnets and knee-length swimsuits.
Robbins's seaside romp is only one example of how High Button Shoes was tailored to the talents of its original cast. Back then, director George Abbott went into rehearsals with only eighteen pages of a script; through improvisation, he built the book around the fast-talking charisma of Phil Silvers (Floy), the alluring sweetness of Nanette Fabray (Sara), and the vivaciousness of Helen Gallagher (Fran). Royal Palm's dismal casting fails to fill those impressive shoes with actors who could make this creaky story gallop.
As Sara, Royal Palm owner/producer Jan McArt is at least three decades older than her "sister," and although she does a dignified turn as the grand lady of New Brunswick, McArt strains credulity as someone who would catch thirtysomething Floyd's roving eye. This disheartening flaw, coupled with Gulledge's wooden performance as her husband Henry, undercuts the subplot of his jealousy, thereby robbing the musical's best-known songs ("I Still Get Jealous" and "Papa Won't You Dance with Me") of their poignancy.
Guastela-Ardito as Fran and Jon Popiel as her football player boyfriend Oggie get a crack at two ballads of their own written by Cahn/Styne (the team that later penned the movie song "Three Coins in the Fountain"). Popiel's voice easily delivers the deep, stirring notes of the love songs, although his eye-popping mugging weakens his comedy numbers. Conversely, Guastela-Ardito struggles with the romantic duets but shines as she "teaches" Oggie the tango, ending up in a handstand with her legs around his waist.
Guastela-Ardito, Popiel, Gulledge, and McArt could perhaps disguise their flimsy performances if Kelley's Floy were able to draw the spotlight away from them. Without radiating a subatomic particle of magnetism, Kelley bungles the con man's starmaking scenes with his lethargic fast pitch and too-evident disdain, guaranteed to tip off any mark. With a little halftime finagling intended to thwart the certain victory of Oggie's football team, Floy struts his stuff singing "Nobody Ever Died for Dear Old Rutgers" -- that is, not until Kelley's transparency killed the number.
Yet even without spellbinding performances, this High Button Shoes with its sumptuous trappings still puts the show on its feet for curious musical theater fans. Chuck Batchelor's rainbow-color gowns and huckster plaids are a delight, right down to the plumed hats of the ladies bird-watchers' society. With his Atlantic City locales, tree-stump swamp, and the polished wood in Sara's dining room, scenic designer Michael Miles admirably meets the challenges of the postage stamp-size stage, while director Bob Bogdanoff handles the scene shifts with a greased fluidity painfully missing from his dramatic pacing.