‘High Button Shoes’ review: Skip this clunky musical revival

Betsy Wolfe and Chester Gregory star in "High Button Shoes" at City Center. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

The City Center Encores! production proves why the 1947 comedy is rarely performed.

Betsy Wolfe and Chester Gregory star in "High Button Shoes" at City Center.
Betsy Wolfe and Chester Gregory star in "High Button Shoes" at City Center. Photo Credit: Marcus Santos

‘High Button Shoes’ runs through Sunday at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., nycitycenter.org.

“Oklahoma!” and “Kiss Me, Kate,” the only musicals to receive Broadway revivals this season, both debuted in the 1940s and have been consistently produced ever since. On the other hand, the 1947 musical comedy “High Button Shoes” is hardly ever performed nowadays. And this weekend, musical theater junkies can learn why thanks to a lumbering and tiring concert revival at City Center.

A popular hit in its day that involved a lot of important figures in the early stages of their careers (including choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Jule Styne and lyricist Sammy Cahn), “High Button Shoes” may be the only musical ever set in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

With a madcap vaudeville spirit running through it, the 1913-set “High Button Shoes” follows Harrison Floy, a hapless con man (originated by Phil Silvers, played here by Michael Urie) who attempts to swindle an upright middle-class community in various scams involving real estate, automobiles and sports betting. Much of the plotting is clunky and outright baffling, and the so-so score lacks any songs that are well-remembered today.

The major highlight of “High Button Shoes” opens the second act. In a 10-minute slapstick ballet set that recreates Robbins’ original choreography, Floy and his subdued sidekick Mr. Pontdue (Kevin Chamberlin) are chased around Atlantic City by the police (a la the Keystone Kops of silent film comedy) as a bag full of cash is passed from person to person.

The City Center Encores! production (directed by John Rando) suggests that without an ace comedian like Silvers, “High Button Shoes” lacks the substance to justify a professional revival — even by a company like Encores! that specializes in rarely seen musicals. Then again, with more inspiration and better comic ingenuity, “High Button Shoes” might have at least been more fun.

Urie (a terrific comic actor in his own right, as recently seen in “Torch Song”) appears to be impersonating Silvers’ antic disposition the entire time; he even wears the same kind of black, horned-rimmed glasses associated with Silvers. The actors playing the local community’s straight-laced characters (including Betsy Wolfe and Chester Gregory) seem ill at ease and unsure whether to approach the material from a standpoint of sincerity or satire.

In a broader context, this has not been the strongest season in the 26-year history of the reputable, beloved and generally excellent Encores! series. “High Button Shoes,” which marks the finale of this year’s series, was preceded by underwhelming productions of Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam” and Rodgers & Hart’s “I Married An Angel.” Here’s hoping for better luck in 2020.

Matt Windman