"Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" is a perfectly inane musical comedy about the joys and rigors of a parochial school education that broke attendance records last summer at Olney Theatre. Knowing full well which side its box office is buttered on, Olney has revived the show as a preseason attraction through May 26.
I missed it the first time around and will be delighted to miss it in any future incarnations. But there are, apparently, hordes who underwent experiences similar to those broadly painted in this romp through a Catholic school system, staffed by an intimidating Irish priest and ruler-wielding nuns. The show is entirely too obvious to be an in-joke, but it probably helps a lot to have been there.
Representative of the lines that seem to unleash hilarity at Olney is this observation by a randy male: " Catholic girls are like whiffle balls: they don't go very far." At a mixer, a nun primly advises a couple that is dancing too closely together, "Leave room for the Holy Ghost." After a stern lecture on "self-abusement," one schoolgirl all but strikes herself in the forehead and admits, "I thought it was self-amusement."
"Patent Leather Shoes" ushers a handful of students from first grade through the high school prom, with stops along the way for catechism class, first confession, playground intrigues and the inevitable sexual awakenings. The latter is complicated by fonts of misinformation and the threat of eternal punishment for those with straying hands.
At the same time, the show charts the romance between Eddie (Joseph Dellger), a good-natured late bloomer who thinks Latin and trigonometry are "two foreign languages," and chubby, pretty Becky (Suzanne Bedford), who eventually loses her baby fat and decides on prom night to become a nun. Talk about heartache! (Talk about heartburn!)
The aggressive score does nothing to make this material digestible, the melodies being as unabashedly simple-minded as the lyrics with their may/day, school/fool, buns/nuns rhymes. The songs explore such topics as "Little Fat Girls," "Patron Saints" and "Private Parts," and one, "Cookie Cutters," advances the philosophical proposition that all God's creatures are unique because "there are no cookie cutters up in heaven."
For all the apparent potshots they are taking, the perpetrators of this sophomoric entertainment (John R. Powers, who wrote the book; and James Quinn and Alaric Jans, who contributed the songs) are not about to knock the rosary that feeds them. About half the time, "Patent Leather Shoes" makes its hay at the expense of Catholicism; but the other half, it is proffering warm, earnest sentiments as expiation for the very jibes it has dared make. That's called having your salvation and mocking it, too.
In light of a "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You," the satire is superficial, indeed. The sentiment is as sticky as a rack of Mother's Day cards. More important, one tends to cancel out the other theatrically. The authors, for instance, are thrilled to make those incessant wisecracks about "going too far." But then they turn around and hand the befuddled students a collective ballad, "How Far Is Too Far?" that is meant to be plaintive and heartfelt. All evening long, you can hear the gears stripping.
Olney's production, directed by Bill Graham Jr. and performed by an energetic cast, tends to resemble an aerobics class on speed. I found so much enthusiasm expended on so little to be vaguely depressing. But Brigid Cleary, wheeling around the stage as a mean old nun, is sometimes amusing to watch. Timmy Fauvell, as an overweight classroom eager beaver, is not.
Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? by John Powers. Music and lyrics, James Quinn and Alaric Jans. Directed by Bill Graham Jr.; musical direction, Rob Bowman; choreography, Carole Graham; sets and lighting, James D. Waring; costumes, Kate Corbley. With Joseph Dellger, Suzanne Bedford, Brigid Cleary, Christian Kauffmann, Robin Boudreau, Timmy Fauvell.