Forget the economic crisis, the floods in Pakistan, the communities devastated by the BP oil leak, Sadler's Wells has put its money in Shoes, a song-and-dance revue that gives us the Age of Decadence. It may be all tongue-in-cheek, but it's still decadence, a hymn to shoe fetishism, from impossible Terry de Havilland platforms and teetering stilettos to ballet shoes, flippers and even skis. You have to marvel at the resilience of the dancers. As they tap, swish and stomp through each dance number dedicated to a brand or style, they do terrible things to their feet, assisted by the long list of big-name designers who have donated the 250 pairs of shoes.
Shoes started life as a pitch, needing just 15 minutes before being snapped up by Sadler's Wells. The pitcher was Richard Thomas, best known as co-author of the cult musical Jerry Springer – the Opera. From that, it has grown like Topsy into an ambitious spectacle, requiring a staff of thousands (or thereabouts), among them a "shoe researcher" and her assistant, a snake called Simon, puppeteers and two choirs.
Tom Pye's clever set features a giant stiletto sandal that doubles as a podium. Tim Hope and Gaëlle Denis's film and animation projections – flip-flops arranged in kaleidoscopic patterns, a Ferragamo platform shoe, exhibited like a priceless sculpture – contribute to the pervasive kitsch. The dozen dancers appear with six solo singers and an on-stage band who perform Richard Thomas's music and songs, some composed with the lyricist Alethea Wiles.
Many cooks also worked on the choreography, led by Stephen Mear and including the Belgian Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and the prolific Aletta Collins, who is about to create a new piece for Rambert Dance Company. Without the printed programme, though, you'd be hard put to tell who choreographed what; just as you would need preternatural hearing to distinguish all the lyrics of the ensembles.
Solo, the singers are fine, especially Kate Miller-Heidke with her smooth power. The music is efficient, although nothing particularly stands out and I shall not be waiting with baited breath for the album. The lyrics try to be witty and a loose chain of brief singing gags offers nicely surprising punchlines. But not even the appearance of Imelda Marcos and her infamous footwear collection ("I did it for tourism") can spice up what is merely mild, forgettable fun.
The choreography includes Aletta Collins's arms-only solo for a man on skis – short but effective; Birkenstock sandals appear in "The Book of Shoes", worn by a Christ-like figure with a shepherd's crook; "Violently Come Dancing" is a tap-dance number; and "The Shank Vamp" revels in the recherché pleasures of snakeskin, zips and studs. Meanwhile, Teneisha Bonner darts and dodges around shoe boxes, a shoe-thief with deft hip-hop moves in recurring "Sneaker Addict" sequences. And I genuinely enjoyed the fusion of song and movement in Cherkaoui's "Old Shoes" number, the dancers and singers enacting the nightmare wedding scenarios of ill-suited couples inset in a giant ornate silver photoframe.
The group dances are slick and well-rehearsed, if you like that kind of thing. This is show dancing, the language of musicals, which figures, given the production's format and the backgrounds of most of the creative team. The puzzle is why Sadler's Wells invited not the theatre, but the dance press, used to more challenging choreography, to write the reviews. Me, I'm not a fan of musical theatre. On the other hand I'm all for fashion and designer shoes, and maybe we do need a dose of humorous decadence to cheer us up in these gloomy times. But in Shoes nothing is quite interesting enough. It comes across as a tenuous conceit that should not have been stretched beyond the 15-minutes of its original pitch.
It goes on an international tour next spring and Sadler's Wells, in committing such huge resources, presumably hopes to have a hit that it can bring back as a reliable money-earner.
Maybe they will be proved right. Tuesday's audience cheered wildly, although it was a gala evening with assorted fashionistas, cordoned red carpets and burly bouncers in suits.
Jenny Gilbert resists the urge to hum along to the Otis Redding songs that inspire Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's new work, at Sadler's Wells.