The musical comedy "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?," which opened last night at the Alvin, is redundant, at the very least. Ending a season that has been fitfully preoccupied with the foibles of a Catholic upbringing, this latest venture into the world of the Church and its schooling is a routine and pallid entertainment. The sweet and the true, the bitter and the blue of puberty, Catholic or otherwise, elude it at every turn as it wallows in sentimental cliches.
It wowed 'em in Chicago, its source, we're told, where it recently chalked up its 1,000th performance, and more recently in a Philadelphia production. I can find no explanation for this, except that there seems to be a time and place for almost everything of a theatrical nature. This is especially true in Canada, which I'd rather discuss than the show, but won't.
The sisters at St. Bastion's School, which we visit in a flashback to the '50s, are a salty lot, particularly crotchety old Sister Lee, who wields a slapstick. And Father O'Reilly brooks no nonsense, except that which the author and director have foisted upon him. But they're all dears, really, and so are the sex-crazed adolescents who hardly ever step out of line and who dutifully spill the weekly beans at confession.
We begin with Eddie Ryan in the present, returning to his old school to look up his boyhood love, who entered a convent. Then we follow Eddie and his chums and teachers back through eight grades at St. Bastion's, where Eddie and a fat girl named Becky - we keep looking at all that leg, waist and shoulder padding, and waiting for it to drop off and reveal the slim beauty underneath - hit it off, slightly. Sure enough, as high-school time arrives in the second half, Becky is a nifty 6 or 8 or whatever size is acceptable for short, pretty girls, and Eddie falls in love. The senior prom finds him without a date and with Becky hospitalized and prepared to take the vows. Back to the present, the school door...and a happy ending.
It's all exceedingly bland. The book wears a wretched smile all evening long as it continually avoids sharp encounters and revealing scenes, while the songs follow the same course, lacking any profile of their own. Becky, played and sung demurely by Maureen Moore, comes close to something, I'm not sure what, as she sits on a schoolyard swing and sings "Little Fat Girls," and there are other instances ("How Far Is Too Far," a chorus number about fooling around, and "Friends, the Best Of," a duet for Becky and Eddie) that show faint glints of promise. But it is only in a few spirited dance numbers that the show comes to even temporary life. (Choreographer Thommie Walsh, a frequent assistant to Tommy Tune, has borrowed Tune's "dancing feet" device from "A Day in Hollywood" to nice effect.) Mike Nussbaum, who has been with the show since its inception, has staged the book adequately.
Russ Thacker, as Eddie, makes an agreeable juvenile lead, and Robert Fitch mugs his way ingratiatingly through the role of Father O'Reilly, breaking out of this mold startlingly and engagingly with a bit of nimble eccentric dancing in the first-act finale. If I've overlooked any real discoveries among the cast, forgive me, they're sure to shine more brightly in future entertainments. And soon.
James Maronek's set of boxlike units makes for dull scenic effects, and the evening's prevailingly low level of inspiration has had its effect on the costuming and lighting as well. The orchestrations and musical direction are professional, but that doesn't help matters much.
Yes, the girls do wear black patent leather shoes in the "dancing feet" numbers; but so do the boys, which somehow misses the point of the title. If you forget, that lies in the Sisters' injunction to the girls not to wear such shoes lest boys catch the reflection, the correlative advice being to avoid wearing pearls for a similar reason. Clear?
This season we have been given a gratuitous Catholic education via Broadway. Enough, already! Detention can go just so far, and penance is not for everybody.
The 1981-82 season still has three days to run. But I have a strong suspicion that Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? will comfortably prove the worst, the dregs, the living pits, of the season.
Possibly if you had had a profoundly Catholic education in suburban America, or were a profound foot fetishist, or, preferably, were both, you might find a few transient pleasures in this witless monstrosity. No one else need apply.
At one point a nun observes: "None of God's creatures are ordinary" - the grammar is hers as well as the observation. She obviously was not thinking of Black Patent Leather Shoes which takes the ordinary to extraordinary lengths.
The perpetrators of the show - which was apparently as successful in Chicago as the late Mayor Daley - are Libby Adler Mages and Daniel A. Golman. They produced it. Miss Mages is the former associate chairperson of the Speech and Performing Arts Department of Northeastern Illinois University - or so she claims - and like Golman, she is a theatrical investor.
This long, miserable and gutless musicla is about as good an investment as a crumpled, losing Bingo card from a demolished church.
The music and lyrics are by James Quinn and Alaric Jans, but I doubt whether their names will prove any more memorable than their music.
The book, such as it isn't, is by John R. Powers, based on his novel of the same shatteringly adroit (and that is not a quote) name.
In the program notes, with a gush of honesty Powers says he chose writing as a career "because he was told he would not have to move anything heavy." He doesn't.
There is a story of sorts - boy comes back to old school searching for former fat girl he loved but lost when she unsuccessfully attempted to become a nun. This is the saga of that quest, and the flashback of their fascinating lives before graduation.
The scenery by James Maronek and the costumes by Nancy Potts are almost imaginatively drab, and one trusts they proved as cheap as they look. The lighting by Marilyn Rennagel enabled the work of Maronek and Miss Potts to be seen, which is a minus; while the sound by Robert Fitzgerald caused much of the dialogue to be inaudible, which is a plus.
The show was directed - with all the expertise of a traffic cop - by Mike Nussbaum, a Chicagoan who has been with the toddlin' musical since it first started to toddle, so that, presumably, explains a lot. I shall refrain from mentioning the choreographer's name because I believe he has talent.
The best performances - although this superlative must be seen as a comparative - came from Robert Fitch as a Priest with a face fixed in an evangelical sneer of godliness but who can do a mean eccentric dance, and Ellen Crawford, convincingly playing an elderly Nun pretending to be an affronted tortoise.
Bring back Little Johnny Jones. Those were the nights.
If anyone on Broadway deserves our unwavering spiritual support right now, it is the ushers at the Alvin Theater. The Alvin is one of the best musical houses in town, but how would you like to have worked there, day in and day out, since ''Annie'' moved away last fall? In recent months, the Alvin's occupants have been ''Merrily We Roll Along,'' ''The Little Prince and the Aviator'' (which closed in previews) and ''Little Johnny Jones.'' And, as it turns out, bad news doesn't always come in threes. Last night, a fourth turkey came to roost at the Alvin, and, though I didn't see ''The Little Prince,'' the theater's new tenant must be the sorriest of them all.
The show is called ''Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?'' It began its life several years ago in Chicago and then went on to acclaim in such towns as Birmingham, Mich., and Philadelphia. I have fond memories of all these places, but this musical did make me wonder if State Street is still a great street and if the Liberty Bell isn't the only thing in Philadelphia that is cracked.
In any case, you may or may not be thrilled to hear that ''Patent Leather Shoes'' is still another show about Roman Catholic folkways. It's a series of noisy, vulgar sketches set in and around a parochial elementary school (Act I) and high school (Act II). Before the intermission, one is treated to jokes about nuns wielding rulers and kids confessing their first sins. The plot, a teen-age romance, begins in Act II and ends on a note of inspirational uplift. The hero (Russ Thacker) finally learns that sex isn't just locker-room talk but a means ''to create another human life.'' The heroine (Maureen Moore), prodded on by a spiritual adviser akin to the Mother Superior in ''The Sound of Music,'' decides to join a convent. The finale is titled ''Thank God.''
It would be unfair to say that the evening's clerical jokes were inspired by Christopher Durang's ''Sister Mary Ignatius'' because ''Patent Leather Shoes'' predates that comedy. It would not be unfair to say that the musical's author, John R. Powers, is to Mr. Durang what George Gobel is to Lenny Bruce. The big laughs here involve a girl's confusion of the word ''self-abusement'' with ''self-amusement,'' the spectacle of nuns wearing shades in a ''Grease''-like doo-wop number, and the line ''Catholic girls are like Wiffle balls - they don't go very far.'' The sentimental paeans to vanished teen-age innocence (''I leave behind the kid I used to be'') sound uncannily like those in ''Is There Life After High School?'', the musical that crash-landed on Broadway earlier this month.
The songs, by James Quinn and Alaric Jans, come in two styles: fast and slow. There are a few nice, if unmemorable, melodies among the slow ones. The lyrics are amateur, but, luckily, they can't be heard anyway during the ensemble numbers. While Thommie Walsh's choreography borrows heavily from Tommy Tune (disembodied feet) and Michael Bennett (in-place leaping and waving), there is a modestly clever Act I finale in which the entire company lies on its back and waves outsized patent leather shoes to the heavens.
Mike Nussbaum's direction is suitably frantic. The set consists of four crudely painted wooden boxes, abetted by dropped cutouts, whose various configurations suggest what a high-school production of ''Dreamgirls'' might look like two decades from now. Both they and the hideous costumes have been lighted with intelligent, if wasted, care by Marilyn Rennagel.
In a musical that has more unappealing and untalented performers than it knows what to do with, there are three sturdy professionals: the strong-voiced Mr. Thacker, the crackling Ellen Crawford as the most tyrannical nun, and Robert Fitch as the inevitable Father O'Reilly. Mr. Fitch, a first-rate dancer, gets only one chance to kick up his heels (and, for that matter, his shoulders), and, brief as the solo is, it's wonderful. The rest of the time, you must fantasize that you are back at the Alvin five years ago, watching him leap through ''Easy Street'' in the original cast of ''Annie.''