While it’s always enjoyable to escape into the ‘golden age’ of movies by watching a classic film, actually being transported into the backstage life of one of the screen legends is a rare treat. From now until January 30th, Cleveland has the chance to do that at the Cleveland Play House‘s production of Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical.
Backwards In High Heels follows Ginger Rogers from the vaudeville stage at the age of 15 through her ascension to Hollywood legend. By combining cherished standards from Berlin, Gershwin and Kern with original songs, the new musical is a swirling account of Ginger’s ambitions and private struggles highlighted by pivotal moments from her career.
One of the most challenging aspects of a production like this is casting. How do you find someone that can portray a pop-culture icon as inimitable as Rogers? In Backwards in High Heels, different actors took different approaches. In the role of Rogers, Anna Aimee White had to understandably bear the brunt of the challenge. She glided through the performance with a spot-on grace and Rogers’ trademark dance moves. Further transformed by makeup, hair and costume, you could have been mistaken for a moment that it was Ginger herself. Similarly, when Matthew LaBanca was playing Fred Astaire, he perfectly captured the poised, immaculately dressed gentleman.
In contrast, while portraying the other screen legends in Rogers’ story, some of the characters were played for comic relief. For instance, James Patterson’s Jimmy Stewart or Christianne Tisdale’s Ethel Merman, Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis were exaggerated, humorous impersonations that played well against White’s more even-keeled portrayal of Rogers. Although these actors may not have looked or sounded exactly like their famous counterparts, when they were in character they carried themselves in such a way that their cameos suspended disbelief.
In addition to these more well-known ”supporting characters,” Backwards in High Heels included portrayals of those in Rogers’ life who may not have been in the spotlight but still had a great influence. LaBanca, Patterson and Tisdale, along with Benjie Randall, played the husbands, agents, assistants and directors that flitted through Rogers’ life, while Heather Lee took on the role of Lela – Ginger’s mother.
Although Backwards in High Heels is primarily the story of Ginger’s rise to fame, at its heart is the relationship between Ginger and her mother. A former performer and reporter, Lela was an extremely strong influence on Ginger. Mother and daughter worked together throughout Ginger’s career — with Lela credited as a pivotal influence on her daughter’s early success in New York and in Hollywood, as well as in her contract negotiations with R.K.O. Backwards in High Heels didn’t tip toe around the struggles that inevitably arose from such an involved relationship. Instead, audiences saw an honest portrayal of Lela’s overbearing control and Ginger’s ingratitude, and how the two were eventually able to celebrate the others’ successes and contributions.
With the exception of a couple early moments of slow story pacing and uneven sound levels that made it difficult to fully hear the first song, audience members were successfully transported into a stylized ‘Hollywood musical’ – much like the shows Rogers performed in. Especially during the solos and duets, the cast’s singing skills were deftly highlighted. However, it was their dancing prowess that really shone — and rightfully so, as a show about a dancing legend. From dynamic tap to gliding ballroom, the actors’ moves kept up with “the girl who could dance before she could walk.”
The set design was also pivotal in escaping into Rogers’ world. Framed within an old Hollywood soundstage, set pieces jumped the audience from small-town Texas to Broadway to the studios and finally to the Academy Awards. My favorite touches were a few flashback moments when the actors were dressed in gray tones reminiscent of a black-and-white film, as well as the use of a large projection screen bordered by a film strip. In the final scene, the stage is stripped and backlit for Ginger’s Academy Award win in 1940. The lighting and blocking created a moment of solitude in which Ginger realizes and appreciates her mother’s influence on her achievements.
Backwards in High Heels plays at Cleveland Play House’s Bolton Theater until January 30th in co-production with Arizona Theatre Company, Asolo Repertory Theatre and San Jose Repertory. Throughout the run, the Play House is partnering with Dress for Success Cleveland to host a High Heel and Accessories Drive in support of the economic independence of local, disadvantaged women. When audience members see Backwards in High Heels, they are encouraged to bring all types of high heels, jewelry, handbags, scarves, briefcases and portfolios for donation. Anyone who does will not only be entered to win a special, one-of-a-kind poster signed by the cast, but they’ll also be helping low-income women suit up for job interviews and look as glamorous as Ginger herself.
Backwards in High Heels / The Cleveland Play House 411: