Backward in High Heels Makes Even Ginger Rogers Forgettable
It's too bad that Virginia Katherine McMath's mother turned down the movie contract her daughter was offered at age 6. A career as a child star might have afforded Virginia, who later took the stage name Ginger Rogers, a more interesting backstory. Which would have given playwright Christopher McGovern a lot more to work with, which in turn might have made Backwards in High Heels, McGovern's musical bio of Rogers, more fun to watch.
Then again, maybe not. The trouble with this musical, which launches Arizona Theater Company's new season, isn't that Rogers' life was a drudge that needs goosing. It's that McGovern has traded a chance to capture Hollywood's golden age for a go at remaking Gypsy. And Christopher McGovern is no Arthur Laurents.
In editing Rogers' life story for the stage, McGovern skips over some early high points, most notably the earliest chapter of her long film career, during which time she left a Broadway hit called Top Speed to shoot her first feature for Paramount, Young Man of Manhattan, in which she uttered the unforgettable line, "Cigarette me, big boy!" a phrase that was echoed throughout the 1930s. McGovern also misses Rogers' noteworthy stint with Warner Bros., where she appeared in the Busby Berkeley musicals that helped the actress make a name for herself as a musical comedy star. According to Backwards, Rogers went from Broadway to RKO and her famous partnership with Fred Astaire, although in fact by then she'd appeared in nearly 20 films, among them the notable 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. There's a nod to Rogers' famous Pig Latin bit in Gold Diggers, but it comes at the end of Act One, after she's already left Warner for RKO.
Most folks won't notice or care about such details, but it's harder to miss the fact that a musical about Ginger Rogers should be a heck of a lot more fun to watch than this leaden tuner happens to be. McGovern's story focuses not on Rogers' often stormy pairing with Astaire or her desire to be taken seriously as an actress, but on her tempestuous relationship with her mother, Lela, who managed Rogers' early career. But musical theater has given us the ultimate mother-daughter backstage story in Gypsy; McGovern might have done better to look elsewhere in Rogers' messy personal life for his drama.
Instead, McGovern only hints at some of this stuff. An early fling with Astaire, before they made movies together, is teased in a single line of dialogue; likewise, Rogers' many marriages are conflated into a quick montage. Her vaudeville and Broadway careers are glossed over to make room for sporadic narration from Lela about the relationship between mothers and daughters. The result is a musical that doesn't tell us much about either its subject or the Tinseltown era she ruled.
The show's saving grace is a pair of fine performances from its leading ladies, and a super-talented cast of singer/dancers who create a series of MGM-worthy musical numbers that distract us from McGovern's sleepy treatment of Rogers' life. Aside from some campy movie star impersonations late in the second act, the all-singing, all-talking, all-dancing chorus never falters and provides the real entertainment here.
Anna Aimee White, as old movie flacks used to pronounce, is Ginger Rogers. Her singing voice is pleasant, not huge, just like Rogers' was. She dances with a hoofer's chutzpah and with the grace of a ballerina, and plays a headstrong diva without losing our sympathy. As Lela, Heather Lee is refined and headstrong, a determined lady rather than the monster stage mother she's sometimes remembered as.
A long list of standards by the Gershwins, Harry Warren, and Irving Berlin are augmented with four new tunes by McGovern, whose songs are, unfortunately, as forgettable as this slight story about a famous lady. Both Ginger Rogers and her determined mama deserve more.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.