Third time’s the charm, they say—and I’ll give Encores!’ final production of the season, High Button Shoes, that it had some of that precious, often elusive quality.
Michael Urie is a charmer for sure, and it was fun to watch him channel the great Phil Silvers. That comic’s flint-edged style isn’t a natural fit for Urie, but he made a game try and exuded personality. And his singing is considerably stronger than Silvers’.
In the juvenile couple roles, Mark Koeck and Carla Duren were lively and engaging, and both also sang very well—Duren especially. Encores! seems to have exceptional luck with their secondary leads: Kristin Chenoweth, Karen Ziemba, Seán Martin Hingston, Michael Berresse, and many others have contributed memorably to past productions in similar roles.
But charm has its limits, and here—even with superb playing by the Encores! Orchestra under the direction of Rob Berman—they were quickly exhausted.
We all know that traditional musical comedies of the pre-WWII era require a lot of indulgence from contemporary audiences. But surely few are less coherent or more boring than this nonsensical story of a sleazy conman plying his trade near New Brunswick, New Jersey (we get not one but two songs about Rutgers).
If Jule Styne, in what was his first Broadway score, had worked his usual tuneful magic… well, maybe that would have been enough. But even the couple of hit songs that come from this show—”Papa, Won’t You Dance with Me?” and “I Still Get Jealous”—aren’t especially strong. Both would have sunk without a trace in a better musical.
Which leaves Jerome Robbins’ choreography. Again, it’s far from his best work, though a seaside ballet number done à la Keystone Cops, studiously restaged here by Sarah O’Gleby, briefly brought down the house. But this was an evening where one was grateful for crumbs.
Nor was the casting entirely satisfying. Betsy Wolfe’s naturalistic acting may have been an honorable attempt to find some depth in a cardboard character, but it made no sense here, where she looked distracted and out of place. As long as the music remained in her soprano range, Wolfe sang prettily if not memorably—but frequent ascents into high chest voice were harsh and yowly. Much of the cast was adequate but not more than that.
It was a lame finish to a wan Encores! season—frankly, not the first disappointing one in recent years. The company’s curatorial mission is one I am absolutely behind, even if it means –and it certainly does—that many of the works they do will be a mixed bag. But increasingly, Encores! sometimes veers off the course of its mission in odd ways (Hello? Big River??), and they’ve been off form, too, in some of their recent casting.
In any case, it would be easier to support mission if the company made better choices. But several recent revivals (including this one) are beyond resurrection, while a host of better shows that should have gotten the Encores! treatment by now remain untouched. (High Spirits, Goldilocks, and Foxy would be at the top of my list.)
The ultimate irony this season is that less than three weeks ago in the same City Center space, MasterVoices delivered a knockout Lady in the Darkthat was everything Encores! canbe—brilliantly performed, smartly staged, and revelatory in bringing a forgotten gem back into circulation, even if briefly. By these standards, Encores! may soon be eclipsed.
If the company holds to its usual schedule, any day now they’ll announce the three Encores! shows for 2020. Till then, they have a reasonably promising summer season. But I’m nervous—if next year plays outlike this one, it might be more like three strikes and you’re out.
Photo: Joan Marcus