Everything's Coming Up Rosaries

Back in 1982, Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? played for only five performances at Broadway's Alvin Theatre before it was shuttered as a critically panned flop. But that wasn't the end of the show. Over the next 20 years, James Quinn and Alaric Jans' lighthearted musical about eight kids surviving Catholic school in the 1950s would become a reliable chestnut for regional and community theaters. Dozens of productions are staged every year.

Take that, critics.

The show is getting a first-rate revival right now at Theatre Arlington, where director B.J. Cleveland has assembled a sharp ensemble of good voices and strong young comic actors. On a set designed by Jorge Lopez Aguado in cartoon colors of yellow, red, black and white, the kids sing and dance their hearts out, carrying the light-as-air plot through two acts packed with good laughs and pleasant, if not really memorable, tunes.

The show is set at St. Bastion's parochial school in a parish that could be in Chicago or Boston or Anytown, USA. Like Grease, the other nostalgia-driven youth musical with which Shoes frequently is compared, the focus is on a group of schoolmates who share classrooms from second grade to high school graduation. Ruling their lives with noisy cricket-snappers and wooden rulers they wield like bullwhips are four stern nuns clad in full-schmear Sound of Music drag.

"In my neighborhood there's only two religions...Catholic and public," says Eddie Ryan, this show's lead heartthrob (played by cutie Eric Domuret), as he introduces the audience to the setting and the characters.

Eddie and his pals Felix, Mike and Louie (Chad Peterson, Brian Brissman, Rick Starkweather) make up a goofy, gray-uniformed gang of four. The objects of their budding affections are lead ingenue Becky Bakowksi (Cindy Honeycutt) and her pigtailed girlfriends Virginia, Nancy and Mary (Margaret K. Gray, Rene Finkenkeller, Heather Alexander), who during the time span of the show evolve from gawky tomboys to boy-crazy teens.

The plot of Shoes is as thin as a communion wafer. Eddie's in love with chunky Becky, who gallumphs through adolescence feeling unlovable. "Can God love little fat girls, too? Little fat girls like meeeee," she sings plaintively.

As he enters adolescence Eddie grows conflicted over religion. He wants proof that God exists and isn't sure he buys into all the catechism lessons being pounded at him daily. Becky, meanwhile, is so faithful and devout she's considering entering the convent after graduation, which pretty much means Eddie isn't getting to second, much less third, base with her after the prom.

The bane of the kids' existence during their wonder years is fearsome Sister Lee (Lisa Anne Haram), the head nun who terrorizes St. Bastion's like Godzilla in a wimple. The book of Shoes (written by John R. Powers, based on his novels about growing up Catholic) uses Sister Lee to embody all the crazy things Catholic schoolkids were taught in days of yore. (Or things we "publics" heard they were taught, even if the tales were merely urban myths, like the one about nuns being legless creatures who get around on wheels.)

"Boys have only two basic drives--sex and hunger," Sister Lee informs the girls during a birds-and-bees lecture. "That is why most rapes take place near restaurants."

Young ladies are not to wear patent leather shoes because they reflect a body's nether regions, the girls are warned. Shiny strands of pearls are a no-no because they reflect down. And restaurants with white tablecloths are to be avoided on dates, orders Sister Lee, "because they remind boys of bed."

On matters of sex the boys are equally misinformed.

"Touch a girl's elbow and she'll do anything for you," one of the young mooks tells Eddie.

"You mean, like, your homework?" Eddie responds.

This meringue of a musical is rife with cornpone lines like that. But the Theatre Arlington cast plays 'em to the hilt, milking every laugh just enough and not a drop more.

Director Cleveland, who also provided the clever, nonstop choreography, pushes his performers in the right directions. As Eddie, Eric Domuret is a strong, handsome tenor, able to bring some interesting layers to a character who's as sticky-sweet as a parish bake sale. Cindy Honeycutt brings a lovely touch of sadness and a light, clear soprano voice to Becky, who sheds the padding of those awkward extra pounds by Act 2 and emerges a good girl who gets her Prince Charming.

In what is probably the production's toughest role to pull off--gruff school principal Father O'Reilly--angular Greg Wilkins, sporting a brushy goatee, manages to slyly steal a scene or two. He's able to play straight man, foil, scary authoritarian (numerous pronouncements about the "everlasting fires of hell") and then, at the end of Act 1, nimble, twinkly-eyed song-and-dance man. Catholic schoolkids would have lots more fun (and fewer headline-making horror stories) under the tutelage of nice guys like Father O'Reilly.

As Sister Lee, Lisa Anne Haram is killer funny, part Kaye Ballard, part Rex Harrison, working every double take like a vaudeville veteran and talk-singing her numbers Professor Higgins-style. Her running gag about all kids' mistakes showing up on their "permanent records" later on in life hits home with anyone who ever worried about what exactly those teachers were scribbling in their mysterious manila folders.

Unlike two other 1980s comedies about Catholicism, Nunsense and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? doesn't get angry over its subject matter. This is an affectionate look at boomers' years at parochial school, not a bitter exposé.

Quinn and Jans' songs make it clear that they think religion is OK, even if some parts of it ring a little ridiculous. Their "Patron Saints" song is a funny tribute to the saints of everything from baseball to baby aspirin. "Private Parts" has Father O'Reilly singing to the boys about the dangers of "self-abuse," including dire predictions of hairy palms and pleasure-induced blindness.

Then they wind up the show with "Thank God," a reaffirmation of faith in all things bright and beautiful--and Catholic. The songwriters have a deft touch with melody and harmonies, and they flirt with some unexpected internal rhymes, pairing "you know so" with "Minnie Minoso." Like Sondheim without the East Coast intellectual angst.

The only real stumble in Shoes is the confused and distracting lighting by Ana Pettit. Follow spots? Who uses those anymore, especially on a small, boxy set? B.J. Cleveland's well-designed set pieces and expert staging are underserved by the lighting, which leaves some characters singing in dark shadows and others jostling to follow the bouncy follow spots.

For messing up what otherwise is a perfectly nice production, the lighting designer and her nervous follow-spot operators should get a good hard whack on the knuckles with a wooden ruler.