Ginger Rogers was an Oscar-winning star who claimed her place in movie history as Fred Astaire’s perfect partner. Through 10 Hollywood musicals, Rogers did matched the elegant, suave Astaire with grace, style and energy. She did everything he did, she famously groused, “for half the money, backwards and in high heels.”
Rogers’ rich life story is the subject of Backwards in High Heels, a show created in 2007 at Florida Stage by Lynnette Barkley and Christopher McGovern. The dance-driven stage biography is now at the Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs, and though simpler in execution, the production delivers thanks largely to the distaff half of its cast.
Director Dan Kelley and choreographer Yoav Levin smoothly convey Rogers’ story, punctuating it with one dazzling dance number after another. Musical director Dave Nagy, bass player Martha Spangler and percussionist Julie Jacobs supply the live music so critical to the give-and-take between singers and musicians. Costume designer Jerry Sturdefant, lighting designer Ardeau Landhuis and Stage Door’s scenic designers largely keep the show’s palette in black, white and grays, appropriate for a star whose movie legacy was captured in black and white.
McGovern’s script, which isn’t always crystal clear, tells the story of the driven woman who was born Virginia Katherine McMath in 1911. Her parents didn’t stay together long, and her mother Lela tried making it in Hollywood as a screenwriter but soon found her life’s calling: micromanaging the life and career of the daughter who rechristened herself “Ginger.”
Determined to become a star, Ginger – played at Stage Door by the radiant, abundantly talented Kelly Skidmore – started dancing on the Orpheum circuit at 15. Before she was 20, she was starring on Broadway opposite Ethel Merman in Girl Crazy. By 1929, she was making movies, and in 1933, she began her rich celluloid partnership with Astaire. In 1941, she won her best actress Oscar for Kitty Foyle, and she became a hugely successful star in movie comedies and dramas in the 1940s.
Rogers less-fulfilling personal life involved five failed marriages and, at least according to McGovern’s take, a love-hate relationship with her mother. At Stage Door, Kate Scott plays Lela as an omnipresent redhead who tries but fails to control her headstrong daughter. The warmth in Scott’s voice as she sings You’ll Never Know underscores the Lela’s feelings of tenderness and pain.
Nicole Davey sketches miniature portraits of several stars – Merman, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn – and emerges as the show’s solid comedienne. Ryan Lingle is a persuasive suitor-turned-scoundrel as Rogers’ first husband, Jack Culpepper, but his Jimmy Stewart bears no resemblance to the affable star. Jake Delany gets the Astaire role, but he looks, sounds and moves nothing like the legendary dancer-choreographer, and Skidmore handily out-dances him. Jonathan Van Dyke, like the other guys, contributes in a variety of roles.
Backwards in High Heels may play a little loose in spots with the facts of a fascinating life. But watching the cast sing and dance to such movie musical classics as Fascinating Rhythm, A Fine Romance, I Got Rhythm, We’re in the Money and Let’s Face the Music and Dance? That’s entertainment.