It’s been said that Ginger Rogers became a star doing everything her dance partner Fred Astaire could do … but backwards in high heels. The Oscar-winning actress-dancer now gets her very own tribute musical, Lynette Barkley and Charles McGovern’s Backwards In High Heels, and it’s hard to imagine a better production of “The Ginger Musical” than the one just opened at Long Beach’s International City Theatre.

ICT has opted for the original six-actor version, and for a number of reasons, smaller makes for a better show than its big-cast big-stage counterpart.

For one thing, the ICT production gives the four-member ensemble supporting Anna Aimee White’s Ginger and Heather Lee as Ginger’s mother Lela the chance to show off their triple threats in a variety of contexts and roles. For another, since Backwards In High Heels is a “memory musical,” told as the reminiscences of its star, a single, gorgeous art deco set by Stephen Gifford is all that’s needed here, lit to showy perfection by Jared A. Sayeg.  

It helps enormously to have Broadway talent in several of the major roles, most notably the captivating White and the dazzling Lee, and a supporting quartet (Matt Bauer, Christopher Carothers, Robin De Lano, Jeff Payton) who prove every bit their equals.

Then there’s Melissa Giattino’s sensational choreography, which has more taps per minute than probably any musical since 42nd Street, and musical director Darryl Archibald on piano conducting an excellent five-piece backstage orchestra.

All this has been brought together with imagination and flair by director caryn desai to make for two hours of Hollywood glamour and magic.

Ginger’s reminiscences begin with the  talent contest that sent her and Lela out on the Orpheum Circuit when the future star was a mere fifteen.  Around this time, Ginger met Jack Culpepper, the first of her five husbands, then went on to take Broadway by storm in Girl Crazy, which also starred the one-and-only Ethel Merman.  Then the movies came a’calling, sending Ginger off to Hollywood and Gold Diggers Of 1933, which had her singing “We’re In The Money” in Pig Latin—Backwards In High Heels’ exciting Act One closer.

Songs in the production are mostly standards by Broadway legends like the Gershwins, Fields and Kern, and Irving Berlin. Some of these are sung Oklahoma!-style in place of dialog while others are on-stage or on-screen performances by Ginger and her Broadway-Hollywood costars. These are supplemented by several new songs by McGovern, most notably the catchy “Tame These Feet” and the show-stopping ballad, “But … When?” which White belts to the rafters.

White and Lee are stellar performers whose talents have been showcased on both coasts, and Broadway and Los Angeles audiences are the winners. The two stars are the very definition of triple threats, the roles of Ginger and Lela giving them a chance to show off all three “chops,” acting, singing, and dancing in equal measure. White effectively transitions from stars-in-her-eyes teen to self-confident film star.  Lee combines maternal love and pride with mother-hen protectiveness and some fancy foot moves of her own.

Broadway’s Bauer is principally Fred to White’s Ginger, and with his lithe physique and graceful moves, proves quite convincing as the film legend, as he does in several other roles including the euphemistically dubbed Bugs Berk and Ginger Hubby #3 Jack Briggs.  The always excellent Carothers is in equally fine form as Ginger’s dad Jack, who kidnapped her briefly as a baby, producer George Schaeffer and Ginger Hubby #2 Lew Ayers. The sensational De Lano not only gets to be Hubby #4 Jacques Bergerac in male drag, but a bevy of female superstars—Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, and most notably a show-stopping turn as Ethel Merman and her trademark hit “I Got Rhythm.” The splendid Payton is flamboyant choreographer Hermes Pan, Jimmy Stewart, and Ginger Hubby #5 William Marshall.

Quibbles are minor ones, but there are a few.  Since Backwards In High Heels ends with Ginger’s Oscar for Kitty Foyle (by the way, back then they said “And the winner is…” and not “And the Oscar goes to…”), the song “Change Partners” suggests Ginger had wed all five husbands by her 1940 win. Not true.  #3 was in ’43, #4 was in ’53, and #5 wasn’t till ‘61.  Ginger was a busy gal, but not that busy.  Kim DeShazo’s costumes are gorgeous and period perfect except for her odd choice (and wig designer Anthony Gagliardi’s) to have a 1930 Ethel Merman (circa Girl Crazy) looking as she did around the time of her 1953 TV special with Mary Martin, full skirt, French twist, and all.  Finally, Bette Davis’s first name is pronounced in two syllables, not one, a mistake Bette Midler’s mother made when naming her.

Other than a few mike problems, Paul Fabre’s sound design nicely mixes voices and the orchestra, and the previously mentioned set by Gifford and lighting by Sayeg make the production look like a million bucks.

Backwards In High Heels is manna for movie, musical theater, and nostalgia buffs, but its story of a young girl aspiring to and conquering show business remains as current as TV’s American Idol. My guess is that Miss Rogers herself would be the first to stand up and cheer this tuneful and dance-ful tribute to her life and talents.

International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
February 26, 2010
                                                                         Photos: Shashin Desai

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