Thursday, January 13, 2011

Backwards in High Heels

BACKWARDS IN HIGH HEELS…entertaining, but…

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, Ginger Rogers, who is the subject of the musical BACKWARDS IN HIGH HEELS: THE GINGER MUSICAL, was unique. Lots of starlets were beautiful, but few had Rogers' gall and chutzpa. She was a feminist who, when she found out her dance partner, Fred Astaire, was making more money than she, supposedly demanded equal pay because she did everything that he did but backwards and in high heels. She was a Christian Scientist who did not drink or smoke and demanded that objectionable words and ideas be censored from her scripts.

BACKWARDS IN HIGH HEELS examines Roger's life, including the role of her overly-protective mother, her rise through the vaudeville ranks, entrance into the Hollywood scene, the many husbands, and her near myth-like glamour.

Rogers filmed numerous musicals with Fred Astaire, starting with the 1933 Flying Down to Rio. The duo is credited with changing the Hollywood musical. In 1940 she broke from her singing/dancing past, and playing against type, won the Best Actress Academy Award for the dramatic saga Kitty Foyle.

The intimate musical, written by Lynnette Barkley and Christopher McGovern, is more review with some story thrown in, than a well-made musical. It contains almost twenty songs, not all of which related specifically to Rogers, and are shoe-horned in between spoken dialogue to create the story. This fragmented blend of music and story pieces causes a lack of idea flow and makes it difficult to get emotionally wrapped up in the story.

Highlight musical segments include Fascinating Rhythm, I Got Rhythm, and But…When?. The tap dance numbers seemed to wow the audience.

The production, under the direction of Scott Schwartz, though it contains some creative staging, often lacks dynamism and cohesion. The entire production could have used faster pacing.

Part of the problem is the casting. Ann Aimee White is marvelous as Ginger. She sings, acts and dances well. Unfortunately, there is an emotional disconnect between White and Matthew Labanca who attempts to portray Fred Astaire. Labanca lacks Astaire's charisma and smoothness, both in speech and dancing. In addition, the three male dancers don't always sync well in their dance movements.

On the other hand, Christinne Tisdale, who plays numerous roles, is delightful. Her Ethel Merman take-off in I Got Rhythm is the smile delight of the show. Heather Lee is character-right as Ginger's mother. Hers is a stellar performance.

The CPH staging is being coproduced with the San Jose Repertory Theatre (San Jose, California), Asolo Repertory Theatre (Sarasota, Florida) and Arizona Theatre Company (Tucson/Phoenix, Arizona).

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: BACKWARDS IN HIGH HEELS: THE GINGER MUSICAL, is an entertaining evening of theatre, which would have been aided by a stronger script, faster pacing and some better casting.