The line-up is dizzying: maverick composer-lyricist Richard Thomas (“Jerry Springer, the Opera”) and four spectacularly skilled singers, West End choreographer Stephen Mear and a matchless team of dancers and, as the title suggests, a topic designed to fit all tastes. Alas, in its current form, the new song-and-dance revue “Shoes” too often trips up on its own talent.
If diversity is the goal, they’ve achieved it. On Tom Pye’s cluttered set, dominated by a giant stiletto shoe and a barely used curved staircase, there are numbers about spike heels, flip-flops, footwear fetishism, a nice running series about the worship of trainers, an (overlong) hymn to Salvatore Ferragamo, the comic “The Psychology of Purchase in the Temple of Retail” and even a drolly witty court appearance by Imelda Marcos complete with deadpan chorus of skeptical guards.
“Health and Safety,” smartly staged, offers instructions on how to wear heels. It has visual clarity and musical wit – the extremity of the heels matched by vertiginously high belt and coloratura vocal writing for the peerless Alison Jiear and Kate Miller-Heidke.
Yet from the prosaic, barefoot opening number “A Brief History of Shoes,” it’s clear that the show suffers from a lack of focus.
Although numbers have been cut during rehearsals and previews, it feels as if gifted creatives have run with every conceivable shoe gag that occurred to them at the first brainstorming session.
Without a controlling narrative, structure is crucial but “Shoes” doesn’t have one or, at least, one that audiences can latch on to. Even Twyla Tharp hit the law of diminishing returns when expanding her perfectly formed “Nine Sinatra Songs” into the more rambling 34 Sinatra songs that were “Come Fly Away.” “Shoes” weighs in with 29 numbers and the choices feel random and the fitful result lacks drive.
Sadler’s Wells is traditionally a receiving house and its lack of producing clout is very clear. In his helming debut, Mear should have been teamed with creatives with far more tuner experience. Although he fills the stage with sound and vision, design elements are at war with one another.
Such diffuse material needs visual coherence but supposedly complementary film projections only draw the eye away from the superbly drilled dancers. And while Laura Hopkins’ costumes are often outrageous and funny – Drew McOnie leads a terrific tap number in sparkly 1970s platform boots – the extremes of her designs confuse the eye in ensemble choreography.
Placing singers on an upper level is a further distraction and Chris Davey’s overly busy lighting feels scattershot when it should be controlling. And although Thomas is a stickler for the audibility of his lyrics, few can be heard. He offers everything from an amusingly deployed Bach fugue pastiche to a swooning Bacharach homage, but with the wit drowned in muddy sound, the atmosphere deflates.
“Shoes” offers the huge pleasure of watching dancers of the calibre of Stephane Anelli, Ebony Molina and Aaron Sillis, and Tim Howar’s rockstar vocals lift the roof off. The production is readying for a U.K. tour. The raw material is there. But it needs far more directorial rigour to become the hit it could be.