REVIEWS: “High Button Shoes” and “Lady in the Dark”
Two recent productions of classic musicals were given first-class treatment at New York City Center. Below I take a look at each:
“High Button Shoes”: as the final entry in this year’s edition of New York City Center’s Encores! series, “High Button Shoes” is a bright and bizarre 1947 collaboration by songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, bookwriter Stephen Longstreet, director and book doctor George Abbott, and choreographer Jerome Robbins. This rarely produced show was a huge hit in its day, with over 700 performances on Broadway, a national tour, and a West End production, and yet it has been absent from the New York stage until this week—and probably for good reason.
Set mostly in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1913, con artist Harrison Floy (Michael Urie) and his wingman Mr. Pontdue (Kevin Chamberlin) use the Longstreet Family, led by Mama (Betsy Wolfe) and Papa (Chester Gregory), for their latest grift: selling swampland to unsuspecting buyers as the development of “Longstreetville: New Jersey’s Newest Small Town”. After getting the cash, Floy absconds to Atlantic City with Longstreet sister Fran (Carla Duren)—who is otherwise wooed by Rutgers quarterback Oggle (Marc Koeck)—in tow. The money changes hands before ultimately being lost by Floy in a bet on the Rutgers-Princeton game. Never fear, though, it all ends happy enough.
A poor man’s version of “The Music Man” (1957), “High Button Shoes” was originally tailor-written as a star vehicle for actor and comedian Phil Silvers, and like many such vaudeville-esque college comedy musicals of the era, leans heavily on the personality of its star for cohesion. While Mr. Urie is a fine actor and a consummate clown, he is unable to provide the anchor that this show needs for success, and two weeks rehearsal time is not nearly enough to flesh out such a performance. The score—Styne’s first for the stage—sounds lovely in the hands of the 27 piece Encores! orchestra under the direction of Rob Berman, but the skill of Cahn’s clever and humorous lyrics far exceed the achievement of Styne’s music, which is largely as unremarkable as the story.
The highlight of the entire evening, and the reason for catching this production, is the stunning act two opener “On a Sunday by the Sea”—an extended, ten minute farcical ballet inspired by the mania of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops. While the balance of choreographer Sarah O’Gleby’s work is quite uninspiring, she brilliantly reconstructs the original Robbins choreography for this number in celebration of the Robbins centennial—and the result is flat-out fantastic. The greatest value that Encores! provides is an opportunity for audiences to revisit old musicals that might not otherwise receive commercial mountings. In this regard, “High Button Shoes” is a prime example: a mostly-forgotten relic that is worth seeing more than it is worth doing. Opened May 8th; runs through May 12th at New York City Center. Discount Tickets
“Lady in the Dark”: under the direction of its Tony Award winning Artistic Director Ted Sperling, MasterVoices mounted a three performance concert version of “Lady in the Dark” at New York City Center in April. While produced separately from this year’s Encores! series, “Lady in the Dark” last appeared in New York in the inaugural Encores! season in 1994, and is the type of musical you are unlikely to see performed outside of such a specially-curated program.
While they often get so much of the credit, Rodgers and Hammerstein were not the only creatives forces in American musical theatre who were experimenting with form in the early 1940s. In 1941, composer Kurt Weill, lyricist Ira Gershwin, and playwright Moss Hart collaborated on “Lady in the Dark” as a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, producing a musical unlike any before or since. Greater integration of music, drama, and dance was the new frontier of the time, but these men experimented on a piece that explicitly did just the opposite, eschewing popular conventions like a splashy opening number or typical love story, and interpolating all the music in three sequences. The result is a fascinating and gorgeous musical.
The original story, inspired by Hart’s own experience, is about Liza Elliott (Victoria Clark), a highly successful editor of a fashion magazine named Allure (a thinly-veiled allusion to Vogue), who finds herself unsatisfied in life and suddenly prone to fits of frustration. Seeking the aid of psychoanalysis as she sorts through romantic interests and business decisions, Liza’s dreams are realized in three fantastical musical sequences spawned from her reclined ruminations on Dr. Brooks’ (Amy Irving ) couch.
While billed as a “concert”, Mr. Sperling worked overtime as director and musical director to craft a superb and fully realized staging of this musical gem that brings it to impressive scale, conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and 100+ member MasterVoices chorus, and welcoming Doug Varone and Dancers to perform the ballet sequences. A product of the strange alchemy of this property and Mr. Sperling’s inventiveness and attention to detail, a low-budget, three performance concert staging felt as lush as a Broadway show.
As a surprise to likely no one, Ms. Clark turned out a phenomenal performance—poised and polished as if it were for an extended run—looking ravishing in costumes designed with the help of current Vogue staff and fashion designers. A secondary star of the show, though, is Weill and Gershwin’s score featuring the earwormy “Girl of the Moment”, haunting finale “My Ship”, and clever “The Saga of Jenny”, which must have served as inspiration for Sondheim’s “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” in “Follies”.
I knew nothing of “Lady in the Dark” before attending a performance, but I now easily understand why it is so beloved by Mr. Sperling and by musical theatre buffs everywhere. I only regret the all-too-brief run of this wonderful staging, and hope it will return for an encore (or an Encores!). Ran April 25-27th at New York City Center.