Helmer Greg Ganakas has done the impossible with the Goodspeed Musicals’ production of “High Button Shoes.” What was one a one-of-a-kind vehicle for Phil Silvers has been turned into a beautifully crafted entertainment that offers just the right amount of charm and silliness, wrapped around a production of nearly unending small delights. The show fits the Goodspeed to a model T.
Ganakas has proved to be an elegant and clever musical conjurer with problematic shows on the East Haddam stage, whether it’s bringing coherence to the troublesome “Babes in Arms” or making the corn of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” turn tasty. But this assignment poses its own challenges: a score that has several swell songs (and some minor ones as well by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn), a helter-skelter script and no Silvers.
But wait. Ably assisted by an especially creative design, musical and dance team — not to mention cast — Ganakas has made this piece of period fluff into a satisfying whole by turning the 1947 show’s deficits into assets.
He maximizes the winning tunes (“Papa Won’t You Dance With Me,” “I Still Get Jealous” and “Can’t You Just See Yourself”) while finding inventive diversions to accompany the lesser ones. He has sharpened the shape and recalibrated the focus of the story, making it just as much about the family in the storyline as it is about the show’s nominal star. And instead of finding a Silvers clone, he cast against type with the handsome, robust Stephen Bienskie as likable conman Harrison Floy, who goes home to New Brunswick to dupe the locals in a real estate scam.
Bienskie keeps the vaudevillian spirit of the role as Floy bamboozles the husbands, flutters the wives and spinsters and enlists the audience as his playful accomplice. But he brings his own comic flourishes and physicality to the role, twisting his body to suit the limber lies, spastically kicking his leg as if shocked by his own moxie and cooing sweet nothings to a gaggle of aging girlish admirers.
Ken Jennings does some larceny of his own, stealing a good share of the laughs as Floy’s gum-chewing partner in crime — and having great fun in an underwater ballet. (“The Little Mermaid” folks should take note of what can be done with just fabric and flippers.) The two flimflammers share an added song to the score, “First-Class Number One Bum,” borrowed from a Styne flop, “Look to the Lillies,” that’s fine but forgettable.
But Ganakas balances the burlesque excesses with some lovely and specific details in the family Floy fleeces, from the easygoing father (William Parry) to a mother eager to let loose (Jennifer Allen) and their young son (a thoroughly assured Emmett Rahn-Oakes), who takes it all in, giving the aud a soft focus amid the garish goings-on.
Even the show’s ingenues of both sexes (Russell Arden Koplin, Brian Hissong) are wonderfully off-center while being true to the music. Koplin brings a slightly loopy take to a mere sketch of a character. Hissong proves to be resourceful as well as solid, whether playing it sweetly macho as the dim Texan or singing a love song in a gorilla suit (a nice quirky yet gentle touch for a so-so song).
Also giving strong support are Dorothy Stanley and Cheryl McMahon as a pair of bird lovers, all atwitter around Floy, while Drew Taylor sputters the right outrage as one of the swindled townsfolk. The ensemble of tap-dancing Keystone Kops, bathing beauties and football players are multitasking marvels.
Linda Goodrich’s choreography is an example of inspired economy, perfect for the tiny Goodspeed stage. Gregory Gale’s gorgeous and whimsical costumes are splendid. Chrisman Jones’ set design frames the show as a silent movie but then zooms in for some beautiful period detail, both real and impressionistic.