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.
Cast recordings make it possible to hear the scores of long-forgotten musicals, but only productions such as this let us actually experience lost gems, and the audience around me clearly relished the opportunity. True, you still need to use your imagination to capture the magic of High Button Shoes, but this show, despite its faults, returns the musical to the stage -- where it belongs.
The sixth annual Key West Theatre Festival kicks off on Thursday, October 2, presenting seven productions, six play readings, and one workshop before its close on Sunday, October 12. On the weekends -- starting 7:30 p.m. Friday -- those who quickly bypass all of the town's T-shirt stands can catch the five full productions aimed at adults.
The varied offerings are tied together only by the fact that they spring from new authors. Festival artistic director Joan McGillis laughs with exasperation and explains, "People used to come up to me four years ago when I started doing this and ask what the theme was. What am I'm supposed to say: 'I'm only doing plays about old people this year'?"
The most recent call for submissions drew 400 entries from around the nation. "We have a sofa," McGillis says, "and come mid-April that's where my office is."
Last year's fest played to 3000 people, triple the attendance in 1995; given the increased number of productions (up from four plays) and additional venues (now totaling five, including Old City Hall, which hosts a courtroom drama), the 1997 renewal will very likely draw even more patrons.
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Established off-Broadway playwright and Coconut Grove resident Rafael Lima has a firsthand understanding of the fest's appeal; his play Hard Hats went from its world premiere at the festival in 1993 to a production by New York City's Manhattan Class Company in 1994. "For me it's an avenue to polish new works," remarks Lima. "In Key West I am able to work on a play before I feed it to the wolves in New York." Although he does not have a play in this year's festival, Lima will nonetheless participate by moderating a free play-writing workshop. "This is one of the best places I've seen in Florida to get new work produced," he says. "No one is as open to new theater as in Key West -- and sipping rum and Coke under a palm tree ain't bad either."
Tim Ferrell will be flying down from his home in Portland, Maine, to see a production of his Where There's Smoke..., which he co-wrote with Lesley Abrams. "We've done [the play] up here in New England," he says, "and this gives us a chance to take it somewhere else, put it before strangers, and see how it holds up in the real world. Also, there's always the process of peddling the piece and hooking up with someone that might want to develop it." But Ferrell won't jump at just any old offer. "I've been to Key West twice when I was doing children's theater," he recalls, "and was robbed both times. I'm looking forward to going and keeping my money in my pocket."
For more information on the Key West Theatre Festival, call 305-292-3725 or 800-741-6945 or see "Calendar Listings."
High Button Shoes.
Music by Jule Styne; lyrics by Sammy Cahn; book by Stephen Longstreet; directed by Bob Bogdanoff; choreographed by Pam Atha; with Dan Kelley, Jan McArt, Jerry Gulledge, Don McArt, Chrissi Guastela-Ardito, and Jon Popiel. Through November 30. For more information call 800-841-6765 or see "Calendar Listings.