About Those Black Patent Leather Shoes

If “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?” isn’t a hilarious re-tell of my Catholic school upbringing, I don’t know what is. This musical is presented by UMD Theatre, in collaboration with the UMD Theatre Orchestra, Wednesday through Saturday, October 17-20, 7:30pm, at Marshall Performing Arts Center on the UMD Campus.

Director/Choreographer Ann Aiko Bergeron puts a greatly talented gang of students through sprightly paces. Their voices are super-good; there’s a lot of good dancing, and they make us laugh. Costume Designer Patricia Dennis has the 50’s and 60’s Catholic school garb down to a T. Music Director Kate Ufema either has ultra-talented students or she’s a genius or both. Scenic Designer Topaz Cooks effectively puts us in church and classroom.

Our hero is Eddie Ryan, whom we meet as an adult returning to his alma mater to look up a former classmate. As he waits to talk to the old nun who’s principal, his mind wanders in time. Burnsville Junior Erin Miller is outstanding as Eddie. His singing voice is ever-so-pleasing, and it’s amazing to see him jump in the air to land squarely on the middle step of a set of stairs.

We’ve all had an Eddie in school. He’s the kid who loses his homework, doesn’t have a pencil, fails tests, and in this case, doesn’t have his mission money and comes late for Mass. The St. Bastion’s kids, like my classes, attend services every day before school.

Although they act more harshly, the nuns sure look like the Ursulines I knew at St. Patrick’s. They have the children recite the same catechism questions we did. Q: “Why did God make you?” A: “He made me to know him, to love him, and to serve him and to be happy with him in heaven.”

There are four nuns. Emilie La Bonte is the principal, Sister Lee. La Bonte splendidly ages as the play progresses. She could have been my principal, Mother Alice, who saw me through four years of high school Latin. Stephanie Hammon is second grade nun, Sister Helen, rougher than my Mother Imelda. In fact the four nuns whack kids with rulers and knock their noodles. Ours just threw blackboard erasers or banged the desks with a pointer in some of our 60-student grade school classes.

Confession was a big deal for 1960’s Catholic school kids. As little kids, we learned to picture our soul as a blank slate, and then to see black marks appear for every sin we committed. St. Bastion’s pastor, Father O’Reilly, teaches the mantra, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned” and continues with the specifics to make a good confession. Salt Lake City’s Jayson Speters is topnotch as O’Reilly. His wry facial expressions are a hoot, and he cuts a fine step even in that long, black cassock. Could this be a Mormon in priest’s clothing?

Nicki Tatgi does a delightful job in the role of little fat girl, Becky Bakowski. She and Eddie are continually the brunt of taunts and become best friends, a relationship that matures as they grow older. In fact the tale follows them ultimately to the altar, but not without detours.

My deja-vous was constant. John Powers wrote the book in 1975, when his memory was acute. Scenes such as jumping rope to “Teddy bear, teddy bear”; crowning the May Queen with “Oh, Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today...”; strict nuns who could tenderly help a child over a bleak hurdle. And how
many years has it been since I remembered buying a ‘pagan baby’?

And yes, we did think of ourselves as distinct from the public school kids. You see, to get to heaven, you had to be baptized Catholic, a Church position stood on its head during the “Black Patent Leather’ era of the early 60’s when Pope John XXIII up-ended many longstanding Catholic foibles.

St. Bastion’s eighth grade boys ask the nuns stickler questions over church doctrine, just as the boys in my class did. Both priest and nuns talk about ‘vocations’, the dangers of marrying a non-Catholic (that was hairy for me, because my Dad was Lutheran), and for the girls, the patent leather shoes, white table cloth issues. The admonishments about sex made by Pastor O’Reilly to the boys were new to me. And, yes, the nuns measured how high our uniform skirts were.  

Catholic girls are renowned for not going too far. They make the stations of the cross for penance, wear the very same one-piece blue gym suits we did, are pinned by college frat boys, and one even has an appendectomy right before Prom: this funny show is my history. That writer Powers was born and raised in my home state of Illinois may be the answer.

Can playgoers who never entered a Catholic church enjoy ‘Patent Leather Shoes’? Can a young audience appreciate young lives from another era?

The music and lyrics by James Quinn and Alaric Jans are way entertaining. The acting is super- let me add Junior Emily Fletcher who plays goodie-two-shoes Mary Kennedy, a spittin’ image of my St. Pat’s Mary Lou Fisher. All of the actor/singers’ solos are way good, Ryan Fargo’s bass just another example.  The show will certainly give those with other belief systems a smattering of what Catholic schools were about some fifty years past. The pitfalls and problems are ones kids still face today. Go and enjoy it. And where was that orchestra anyway?