Monday, August 27, 2007

High Button Shoes at Goodspeed Opera House

Connecticut is home to a number of first rate theatrical companies. My favorite is the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. Their mission is twofold. First, is the advancement of musical theatre, which was the impetus for their original stagings of Man of LaMancha, Shenandoah, and Annie before they headed to very lengthy runs on Broadway. Second, is “the preservation… of musical theatre.” Since 1963 Goodspeed has presented well-known and beloved musical productions as well as lesser known gems. Their second offering this year, High Button Shoes, falls into the latter category.

This rarely produced Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn show, originally directed by George Abbot (who co-wrote the book) and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, revolves around con man Harrison Floy and his sidekick, Mr. Pontdue as they repeatedly attempt to bamboozle the populace of New Brunswick, NJ. Throw in the Rutgers University Scarlet Knights football team, a love story, the Keystone Kops, and a happy ending and you have the basic ingredients for this immensely pleasurable show.

Stephen Bienske embodies the scheming, slippery, flim flam artist, Harrison Floy (portrayed in the 1947 production by Phil Silvers) with a sophisticated and refined contemptibility. While he plays the role with perfect aplomb, his characterization would be more believable (and enjoyable) if there was somewhat of a sleazier edge in his depiction of Floy—think Silvers or Robert Preston (a la The Music Man). But I’m nitpicking. High Button Shoes is probably one of the best cast musicals I have seen at Goodspeed in years. Every actor and actress fits their role beautifully. From the young lovers, ingĂ©nue Russell Arden Koplin as Miss Fran Beck; and Brian Hissong, as football star, Hubert Ogglethorpe; to the poignantly portrayed Mama and Papa Longstreet, played by Jennifer Allen and William Parry.

Director Greg Ganakas manages to keep the action moving along, especially in the somewhat slow-moving First Act, building towards the Second Act one-two opener, the cheery, “On A Sunday by The Sea,” and the wild and frenetic “Keystone Kop Ballet,” a merry romp in and around Atlantic City’s bath tents and boardwalk. Augmenting Ganakas’ work is choreographer Linda Goodrich, once again demonstrating how a seasoned professional can take such a small space—both on and off stage—and create sheer dancing magic. Two other members of the creative team worth noting are scenery designer Howard Chrisman Jones, for his varied and fully conceived depictions of life around the turn-of-the-century; and costume designer Gregory Gale for a slew of gorgeous and sumptuous outfits. Bravo.

The score by the aforementioned Styne and Cahn has a number of exceptional tunes including “Papa, Won’t You Dance With Me,” “Nobody Ever Died For Dear Old Rutgers,” and “I Still Get Jealous.” The latter song, sung by Jennifer Allen and William Parry is a simple, heart-warming number with a bit of the old soft shoe. The two theater veterans command the stage with no pyrotechnics or overstuffed orchestrations to clutter their style. A pure joy to behold.

High Button Shoes, the perfect respite for the last days of summer. Now through September 22nd at the Goodspeed Opera House.

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