Is there anything that can bring a bigger smile to your face than a dancing gorilla? Or, more accurately, a person in a gorilla suit hoofing it up in an over-the-top dance number that involves nearly two dozen performers chasing each other in and out of nine slamming doors in a Keystone Cops-like whirlwind of frenetic energy?
The “Bathing Beauty Ballet” near the top of Act 2 of “High Button Shoes,” a classic 1947 musical comedy that opened on Wednesday as part of New York City Center’s Encores! revival series, is indeed a show-stopper, choreographed to well-timed perfection by Sarah O’Gleby (in homage to the great Jerome Robbins’ original work).
Would that the rest of the production had such verve — because it would help to paper over a show that’s about as substantial as cotton candy, dissipating almost the moment you taste it.
Composer Jule Styne, working with lyricist Sammy Cahn in his Broadway debut, crafted a melodic score whose effects are similarly ephemeral. He’d make a stronger impression two years later with the hit “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” — and later with shows like “Funny Girl” and the forever-revived “Gypsy.”
The indefatigable Michael Urie stars as a charming con artist named Harrison Floy who, along with his loyal sidekick (played to hangdog perfection by Kevin Chamberlin), returns to his New Brunswick, New Jersey, hometown to carry off a grand swindle.
But the thin plot is supplemented by vaudeville-ish side bits involving everything from Texas cowboys to suburban bird-watchers to the Rutgers football team to all those cops chasing baddish guys amid seaside beachgoers. And Stephen Longstreet’s book, which packs in dated punchlines that seem to carry their own rimshots, probably seemed dated even in its day.
Director John Rando’s Encores! revival only really comes to life in that quick-footed second act, with the seaside dervish and another homage to Robbins’ choreography, the soft-shoe duet “I Still Get Jealous” between a long-married couple played with great charm by Betsy Wolfe and Chester Gregory.