Shoe Palace Murray, the new Circle East production currently playing at Baruch College's Bernie West Theatre, pays homage to a more innocent era of musical comedy revue. This sweet story, set in a struggling theater-district shoe store during the 1920's, has plenty of charm and talent, and is a delightful throwback to many old-school screwball comedies from the golden age. But it also borrows from one source in particular a little too closely. A Depression-era business fallen on hard times. A nebbish salesman who pines for someone else's woman. Another female character who suffers from the violent temper of her significant other. Any of these elements sound familiar? They converged to great success as part of the framework of Little Shop of Horrors, that seminal mini-masterpiece. It is difficult to say whether playwrights William M. Hoffman and the late Anthony Holland had that show in mind when working on Shoe (which first opened in 1988), but the result is the same: this show cannot help but feel slight and derivative in inevitable comparison.
Nervous, stammering Benny Vogel (Jim Ireland) is the yin to slick womanizer Murray Howard's (Chip Phillips) yang. Together, this duo works at I. Miller, a 46th Street shoe store catering to stars and molls alike. Murray hatches a half-baked plot to open up his very own shoe palace and strike it rich, and ends up weaving a very tangled web involving a failing Broadway show, an aspiring starlet, and a female accountant. The action itself, which only really gets into gear at the end of the first act, is pretty slight, and certain details never prove wholly relevant. For instance, Shoe takes place on the day in 1926 that Rudolph Valentino was buried, but this detail never asserts its relevance.
Additionally, Hoffman and Holland create a major sea change between acts. Once the audience gets used to the marvelous team of Ireland and Phillips, most of the second act features a markedly different and yet well-performed (and occasionally riotous) set of scenes between Marion (honey-voiced Christa Capone), Murray's girlfriend, and Delphi Harrington (Alla Nazimova), a Russian actress who becomes an empowering mentor for Marion.
This kind of schizoid storytelling does benefit from some top-notch talent. From beginning to end, Phillips is the consummate pro, wonderfully slick as Murray and very generous as the play progresses in handing over the baton as Ireland's role takes center stage. Ireland is an absolute miracle worker, with his nervous tics, grimaces, nail biting, precious stammer, and horrific posture. The sextet of the cast is rounded out by two other fine performances: Sarah Irland as the beaten-up Lucille and Judith Barcroft in a small, early role as nosy doyenne Texas Guinan.
Shoe possesses a few other glitches that deal more with Barbara Bosch's direction than the script, including many instances where the pace needs to be picked up and some predictable bits of physical comedy (usually involving Ireland and Phillips twirling phone cords) that do not really pay off. But if these problems were to be fixed, a larger one would still remain. Hoffman, who two decades ago had major success with the excellent As Is, and Holland took a story that could have been delightful and made it merely palatable at best. With so many recognizable elements in play, this is a case of familiarity breeding a tad too much contempt.