DO BLACK PATENT LEATHER SHOES REALLY REFLECT UP?

Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2004

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Catholic Church. If I was or had been, or if I had attended a Catholic school, I think my opinions on this show would be very different. Certainly, Shoes, as it is colloquially known, has a huge cult following. Just the fact that it is still being produced after running a scant five performances on Broadway in 1982 is a tribute to its staying power. It is a sweet and gentle show, perhaps a little too much so for my liking, with many lovely messages about the Catholic faith and how it affects the young people raised in it.

The show is written by John R. Powers, based on his book of the same name, with music and lyrics by James Quinn and Alaric Jans. Director Tim Bennett has mounted a cheerful production at the Theater Barn, highlighted by Laura Binstock’s luminous performance in the leading role of Becky.

The show focuses on Edward “Eddie” Ryan (Robert McCaffrey) and Rebecca “Becky” Bakowski (Binstock) and their peers as the begin their education at St. Bastion Elementary School, and then continue it at separate boys and girls Catholic high schools, St. Patrick Bremmer and St. Anne’s.

McCaffrey looks like a guy who went to a Catholic school, and his baby face, although it is getting some age on it, suits him well for the role of Eddie. Binstock manages to look just as plain as porridge in the first act, and then blossom slowly into a pretty, but not beautiful, young woman. Her performance is very real and understated. She gains your complete sympathy.

I was disappointed that Powers took the easy way out with Eddie and Becky’s relationship at the very end of the show. I admired Becky’s conviction in her calling, particularly in contrast to Eddie’s aimlessness, and would rather have seen it played differently.

While there are only eight “kids” Powers focuses on Eddie and Becky to the detriment of their classmates. Eddie and Becky are classic misfits, and also very devout young people. It would have been fun to hear more from Mike Depki (Jarret Mallon), whose older brother is an atheist, Felix Lindor (Marvin Avila), the class clown, Louie Schlang (Douglas Ullman, Jr.), the hopeless nerd whose hair will never comb down, Virginia Lear (Eleanore E. Gutwein), the risk-taking tomboy, Mary Kenny (Sarah Nuffer), the “perfect” girl, or Nancy Ralansky (Emily Cawrse), who I think is supposed to be the “fast” girl although that wasn’t entirely clear. Instead Eddie and Becky get all the scenes and solos and we only get to know the others through an occasional joke or their behavior during a group number.

This is a great shame because all six of the performers in the “lesser” parts are talented folks with more to offer than they are given a chance here, but that is entirely Powers’ fault, not Bennett’s. It is always slightly uncomfortable to watch grown-ups play children, but Mallon, Ullman, Lindor, Gutwein, Nuffer and Cawrse make nice work of a difficult task. Lindor, a newcomer to the Theater Barn, is a funny guy, or at least he’s good at playing one. Ullman looked just so sadly goofy with his perpetual cow-lick, and Mallon managed to rein in his darker side to play the tough guy innocence of youth. The ladies all looked their parts and played them with energy.

Amy Fiebke, Donna Gould Carston and Michelle Blanchard play the nuns, and John Trainor is the priest Father O’Reilly. Gould Carston is charming as the gruff nun with a heart of gold, and Fiebke displays a glorious singing voice in her brief solo spots. Trainor is rather a one note actor, but his one note is perfectly suitable for this role.

Jacci Fredenberg has designed very realistic Catholic school uniforms for the “kids” to wear. The nuns and Father O’Reilly get standard issue clerical garb. Unbeknownst to her, the shapeless navy jumpers she designed for the girls to wear in their elementary school years are almost identical to the uniform I wore for thirteen years of my life, at a private rather than a parochial school, right down to the navy blue cotton panties (we called them “bloomers”) and knee socks. Mine never stayed up – the socks, not the panties (phew, dodged a bullet there!!)

After all I had heard about this show over the years, I was more surprised by what it was not than by what it was. It is a far smaller, softer show than I had imagined, much more predictable than all the fuss over it seemed to warrant. But obviously, as I was gripped by seeing girls prance about on stage in my old school uniform, millions of other people are moved by hearing phrases and ideas and moments from their past brought to life. If you are now or have ever been a Catholic, I think you will like this show very much.

Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? runs through August 22 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. There is an hilarious Catholic sex education segment, which actually might be more confusing than enlightening to any child in attendance. There is essentially nothing offensive about the show, but if that kind of thing bothers you, you would be better keeping children under 12 at home. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004

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