Backwards in High Heels, San Jose Rep’s latest production, is a regional premiere produced by Asolo Repertory Theatre, Arizona Theatre Company and The Cleveland Playhouse based on the life of Ginger Rogers. Overall, the musical is filled with some fantastic music by musical theatre geniuses: Gershwin, Berlin, and Kern, and even some terrific tap dancing, but the story lacks true insight into Roger’s life. The show is entertaining in it’s own right and is a pastiche of golden-age musicals, but I left the theatre feeling unsatisfied by it’s lack of clever story-telling.
The cast, filled with Broadway veterans, are incredibly talented – most noticeable was the tapping. It’s rare, nowadays, to see a musical with true, bonafide tappers. Anna Aimee White (Ginger Rogers) and her three male back-up dancers – Matthew LaBanca, Benjie Randall, James Patterson – were all fantastic tappers. The advanced choreography by Patti Colombo was flashy and exciting since all of their sounds were clear and crisp throughout. I was quite impressed by it all. But throughout Roger’s later years, she was known for her ballroom dancing with Fred Astaire in her movies. Unfortunately, that part of the choreography and staging lacked polish and originality. I only remember one ballroom-dance styled number and it was less than stellar. The previous tapping was so showy and advanced that when it got to the climax of the story during Act 2, the ballroom dancing was only so-so, and was a major letdown.
The music was sung beautifully and integrated quite seamlessly into the plot. They used music from Girl Crazy, Crazy For You, 42nd Street, Swing Time and others. It just didn’t really push the plot forward or give any further insight into Roger’s life. They all fit perfectly, but never shed enough light on Roger’s personal life. They used some of my favorite musical theatre songs of all time: “Fascinating Rhythm”, “Embraceable You”, “Baby Face” and “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off.” It’s hard to go wrong with these old popular favorites (especially in a crowd that probably remembers when they were popular the first time) but I needed something more.
Recently, I saw the biography of Mae West presented as a play called “Dirty Blonde”. It gave real insight into West’s career, personality and lifestyle. It fascinated me — enough to learn more about Mae West’s life after seeing the production. I learned very little about Ginger Roger’s life in Backwards in High Heels. I learned that she had a very possessive and hard working stage mother and a few husbands (it wasn’t very clear on how many). It was also talked about how Roger’s got her break into the business in the musical, Girl Crazy. (In reality, her break was from the musical, Top Speed.) Other than those few things, her life seemed as normal as any other performer – nothing unique. I would assume starring in over 70 movies from years 1930-1965 is anything but ordinary. I’m sure there was more material they could have chosen from. Anything to make the story more distinctive so we understood Roger more would have been a better option. While, I loved the tapping and the music (and the acting was quite good too, especially Christianne Tisdale’s impersonation of Ethel Merman), I needed more depth in the story.
Overall, this new musical is a throwback to an earlier era and one that’s extremely enjoyable, but I just wish that the story gave more insight into Roger’s life.