Screen legend Ginger Rogers takes to the floor again in Lynnette Barkley and Christopher McGovern’s lightweight musical biography Backwards In High Heels, now getting its first big-cast production by Fullerton’s FCLO Musical Theatre. Though not as dance-heavy as 42nd Street or Crazy For You or as meaty as Gypsy, Backwards (subtitled The Ginger Rogers Story) nonetheless provides two hours of fancy footwork, classic 1920s and 30s songs, and Broadway/Hollywood nostalgia.

Melissa WolfKlain is Ginger, whom we first meet as a teenager dreaming of stardom in “Tame These Feet,” one of several original songs created for the show by book writer/musical arranger McGovern. Though Ginger’s journalist mom Lela (Cynthia Ferrer) isn’t all that supportive when fifteen-year-old Ginger tells her she’s entered a dance competition, she begins to change her tune when her girl beats competitors and wins first prize—a tour on the Orpheum Circuit. From then on, it’s a steadfast (though occasionally prickly) mother-daughter collaboration which will last over five decades.

Backwards In High Heels follows Ginger (and Lela) as the young star-in-the-making moves from vaudeville to Broadway and on to Hollywood, her dancing feet never still for very long.  On the way, we are treated to some snazzy production numbers, including “Fascinating Rhythm,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Who’s Got The Last Laugh Now,” and a faithful reproduction of the now classic scene in Warner Brothers’ Gold Diggers Of 1933 in which Ginger sings “We’re In The Money” … in Pig Latin.

Among the celebrities who pop up along the way are Ethel Merman (Cindy Burnett, belting out “I Got Rhythm”), choreographers Busby Berkeley and Hermes Pan (Dennis Kyle), Jimmy Stewart (Wesley Alfvin), Bette Davis (Valerie Walker), Katharine Hepburn (Maggie Howell), and Marlene Dietrich (Karie Seasock).  We also meet Ginger’s five husbands—Jack Culpepper (Ted Lieb), Lew Ayers (Erik McEwen), Jack Briggs (Alfvin), Jacques Bergerac (Sam Given), and William Marshall (Sean Riley)—though the musical number “Change Partners” implies somewhat unfairly to Ginger that she wed and bed them all before the age of thirty.  (In fact, Ginger didn’t marry Hubby #5 till she’d hit fifty.)

No story of Ginger Rogers would be complete without Fred Astaire, her dance partner in a grand total of ten movies.  Cody Walker is Fred, sharing the dance floor with WolfKlain in “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” and “Pick Yourself Off.”

WolfKlain is a charmer as Ginger, and her singing and dancing are first-rate, as are Walker’s as Fred.  Ferrer’s quirky take on Lela is also a winner, and the L.A. musical theater favorite gets her own vocal solos (“Baby Face” and “You’ll Never Know”) and her very own dance sequence with Fred (“Shall We Dance?”). 

The entire cast does first-rate work, including turns by an amusing Griff Duncan as producer George Shaeffer, the always sparkling Collette Peters in a pair of roles, and Alfvin and Brittany Rose Hammond as “Dream Fred” and “Dream Ginger” (shades of “Dream Curly” and “Dream Laurey”).  Alfvin and McEwen are song-and-dance standouts in “They All Laughed” and an appealing Given proves himself a fine vocalist in “Let’s Face The Music And Dance.”  Completing the talented ensemble are Fernando Duran, Peter Gallagher, Kurt Jarrard, Holly Long, and Bailey Quist.

Production numbers by director/choreographer Rob Barron have that 42nd Street feel (tapping feet galore), and the dance ensemble occasionally doubles as a kind of Greek Chorus to Ginger’s life.

Musical director Ted Helm conducts the production’s ten-piece orchestra, a tad smaller than usual but excellent nonetheless.  Set designer Dwight Richard Odle has created a dozen and a half different locations including dressing rooms, a Hollywood sound stage, and an especially nice Ginger’s Terrace for the requisite Hollywood party. Thumbs up to costume designer Mela Hoyt-Heydon’s many period creations and to Donna Ruzika’s lighting design. A.J. Gonazlez’s sound design is generally good, despite some mike problems at the performance attended.

Backwards In High Heels makes for two hours of bright and breezy song and dance, with a smidgen of mother-daughter conflict thrown in for good measure. It represents a refreshing change of pace from the perennials that make up the bulk of most CLO seasons.

FCLO Music Theatre, Plummer Auditorium, 210 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton.

–Steven Stanley
February 18, 2010
                                                                                   Photos: Kurt Jarrard

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