Ed Sayles, artistic director of Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, usually votes for gold. His company bills itself as “Broadway in the Finger Lakes” because he can be counted on to favor Broadway hits over those from off-Broadway or regional theaters. This summer we’ve had Anything Goes and 42nd Street from classic Broadway plus the recent blockbuster Hairspray.
So what’s he doing with the ungainly titled Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?, from two Chicago-based nonames, James Quinn and Alaric Jans? If asked, Sayles might say that MGR last did Shoes in 1995, and audiences were begging to bring it back. Or he might point out that local boy Thommie Walsh choreographed Shoes when it went to Broadway in 1982. He might even say it’s good business because Auburn, like Syracuse, is more than 50 percent Catholic.
Well, yada, yada. Just a few minutes into Shoes, you know why you’re seeing it. Director Sayles (Christian Brothers Academy, class of 1970) unmistakably loves this show. When you’re running the whole shebang, you get to speak with your own voice, even when it takes a hundred collaborators and performers to express it.
The title comes from parochial school folklore of 50 years ago to the effect that medievally garbed nuns forbade girls wearing skirts from also wearing black patent leather shoes because . . . well, don’t ask. Witnesses of unimpeachable integrity, now in their 60s and 70s, swear to me such a command really was issued. Or maybe it was in the next parish.
In any event, the question represents the excesses of authoritarianism and repression that may or may not have existed in parochial schools two generations ago. What makes such a question comic today is that those institutions, which once looked as indestructible as the pyramids, have vanished. Protestants, Jews, Mormons and even atheists have seen plenty of changes, but not like this.
The show’s origins are in the novels of John R. Powers (born in 1945), all set on Chicago’s far south side. Three that interlock are known as the “Eddie Ryan Trilogy”: The Last Catholic in America (1973), Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? (1975) and The Unoriginal Sinner and the Ice Cream God (1977). Those titles remain in print and are still recommended to young adult readers, even by Catholic agencies. James Quinn and Alaric Jans, both writing music and lyrics, began with a series of skits that grew into a complete show, eventually running 4 years in Chicago, the record for a locally produced show. Although the episodic origins of the show’s book are still evident, Shoes was tightened for its successful New York City run when dance numbers were added.
In perhaps a dozen ways, Shoes bears a certain relationship with You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, starting with the convention of having grown-ups (actors at least in their 20s) playing children. The first act takes place in St. Bastion’s Elementary School and St. Patrick Bremmer High School in the second. Additionally, the narrator and protagonist, Eddie Ryan (David Scott Purdy), is a poor student and not always successful with girls, not unlike Charlie Brown. If memory serves your reporter well, however, David Scott Purdy’s Eddie cuts the pathos and asserts himself more than did the more hapless 1995 incarnation.
As the mature Eddie walks back into St. Bastion’s the first heavy note strikes on guilt, that every infraction a child commits will be added to “the record” in a dog-eared manila folder. Scowling black-clad nuns swing laggard little boys by the earlobes and rain down blows on arms, shoulders and heads with gleaming wooden rulers. For regimentation, the Marine Corps in the first act of Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men can not do as well. The company’s first number, “Get Ready, Eddie,” sounds the warning. But even in the first act Powers’ book allows for rays of sunshine through all the threat when a smiling substitute teacher, Sister Helen (glorious soprano Jeannie Hines-Clinton), offers comfort and support in “The Greatest Gift.” Somehow Sister Helen is only an ensemble member for the rest of the show.
The kids in the classroom embrace some familiar types that also showed up in public school classrooms. By high school in the second act they come to resemble the kids in Grease, but with less attitude. Among the boys: Felix Lindor (Michael Muñoz) is the impish troublemaker, Louie Schlang (Michael Mott) is the cutup, and Mike Depki (Courtney Love) is the innocent who often catches the blame. On the girls’ side, Mary Kenny (Lauren Devine) is the goodiegoodie, Virginia Lear (Aleka Emerson) the naughty one, and Nancy Ralansky (Leslie Goddard) the team player.
In the second act Nancy unexpectedly becomes encumbered with bosoms the size of her head. That leaves the outcast fat girl, Becky Bakowski (Kimberly Burns), who finds comfort with Eddie, her equivalent, in the show’s next number, “Little Fat Girls.”
Try as costumer Lucy Brown may, or hair and makeup designer Bobbie Zlotlnik can assist, Ithaca College graduate and company favorite Kimberly Burns cannot be made ugly. She’s a two-time Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) nominee and was Millie in the 2010 MGR production Thoroughly Modern Millie. Her second-act swan is evident from the beginning. Her leading lady voice counts for more as she and Purdy’s Eddie carry most of the musical burden, especially their love duet, “Friends, the Best of.” Purdy and Burns turn in some of the best performances toward the unexpected resolution in the second act when Eddie pledges his love for Becky, even when he learns he can’t have her.
The rock revolution was not yet quite evident at St. Patrick Bremmer, and musical change is introduced by other kids at the school, Louie with “Doo-Wah, Doo- Wee,” and Felix and Virginia (the bad kids played by Muñoz and Emerson) in the showstopping parody “Mad Bomber,” set in the parish hall. Yet Mark Goodman’s musical direction emphasizes the lyri cism of much of the score, notably in the first act’s “How Far is Too Far,” which is too lovely to ignore.
When it comes to showstopping, the kids cannot beat the clergy. Two MGR favorites reprise their roles from 16 years ago: Alan Clugston as confessor Father O’Reilly in “Private Parts” (don’t mess with them) and Sandra Karas as mean Sister Lee. Tall, gray Clugston, who admits to being typecast in father roles, smashes such casting by doing comedy, not unlike the late Leslie Nielsen. Irrepressible Karas, whom audiences still remember as Miss Adelaide in MGR’s 1995 Guys and Dolls, is fully capa ble of playing scary, a blonde Margaret Hamilton. Only later do we notice the sensible dancing shoes under the habit.
Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? is a loving parody that
never draws blood. In an age where sexting is pandemic and kids don’t
have to Google the definition “hooking up,” jokes about Catholic girls
being like wiffle balls because they don’t go very far have gained new
This production runs through Sept. 10. See Times Table for information.