AISLE SAY Florida
Against the bare brick walls are a huge screen for projections, flats, costumes on a rack, groups of lights—all movable. Insets can move on from the sides. A stagehand mops. These "set" and start a backstage show, the professional interspersed with the personal story of theatre and film star Ginger Rogers. From the later 1920s, when she won a Charleston contest and an Orpheum circuit touring stint, "Virginia" always aimed for higher use of her talents and rewards for her work. Backward in High Heels traces her struggles to achieve, not least against the cautiousness and attempted dictates of her mother, who was also her greatest booster. The show highlights Ginger's musical movie-making, especially involving her dancing (and sometimes off-screen differences) with Fred Astaire. It proceeds to briefly covered appearances in non-musicals and significantly to her 1940 Oscar winning "Kitty Foyle" and acknowledgement of her mother's importance to her. Though it sandwiches in vignettes of her five marriages, outside their actual dates, the show gives nary a glimpse of her considerable career in comic and serious film or of her eventual return to onstage musicals.
As usual with most shows Asolo Rep presents, "The Ginger Musical" is crammed with production values. "Fascinating Rhythm" demands a workout not only from the dancing Ensemble and Ginger (Anna Aimee White, impressing way beyond her Charleston stint) but lighting and sound designers Jeff Croiter and Matthew Parker. Scene designer Walt Spangler gives her the longest kitchen counter imaginable as she sings "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket." When "We're In the Money" comes up, the entire stage goes 24 carat and gold rains down. Such a sensation could only be followed by Ginger next teaming with Fred Astaire (suave Matthew LaBanca) in "Shall We Dance?" and "Pick Yourself Up"—proving greater simplicity can yet produce great eloquence. LaBanca acts more than looks like Astaire, but pulls off a director and others quite believably.
A salient feature of Backward in High Heels is that only White as Ginger and formidable actress and singer Elisabeth Ward Land as her mother Lela play only one roll each. Along with LaBanca, three others alternate in 27, including as stagehands. Craig Waletzko stands out as Ginger's dancing, drinking, older first husband Jack Culpepper, though only a voice imitation makes his Jimmy Stewart recognizable. Christianne Tisdale is a stitch as Ethel Merman and can also smoke and pose like Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich. Most memorable of Benjie Randall's roles are Lew Ayres and a director. If Lela was starchy but professionally competent (writer, teacher, financial handler) and a geninely caring mother, then Land has her down pat. As for White, she sustains exemplary energy and ability in all types of dancing required as well as the heroine's emotional drive. Her performance borders on tour de force. However, never did I feel I was watching Ginger Rogers, since White sounds, moves, and looks very little like her. (Her contrast with Ginger's looks in a projected movie poster is striking.) Alejo Vietti's costumes aim for simulation, true. Hair styles don't. What's most missing? Sophistication.
The great Gershwins' music would be enough to recommend Backward in High Heels to nostalgia fans. It's joined also by other classic and modern show tunes to enjoy. Patti Colombo's choreography is all one would wish. Luckily, music director Tim Robertson has a band of four to deliver the score live. Having been developed by the National Alliance for Musical Theatre and originally produced by Florida Stage, the musical play is being co-produced by Asolo Rep with Arizona Theatre Company, San Jose Repertory Theatre, and the Cleveland Play House. It would seem Ginger Rogers is as much a draw as ever.
Stage Manager: Sarah Gleissner. Time: 2 hrs., 25 mins.
w/15 min. intermission.
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