Missing Ginger

Energetic, talented performers and amazing sets can't save ATC's dull script

What a disappointment.

Here we were, all gussied up and looking to be dazzled by Arizona Theatre Company's season opener, Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical. A rousing tribute to Ginger Rogers is long overdue; Fred Astaire may have gotten most of the attention in those RKO pictures in the '30s, but Rogers did everything he did, just "backwards and in high heels."

Settling into our seats, we are drawn into the magic of the era by Walt Spangler's set, which puts us backstage at a theater, the shades of gray suggesting the days of those classic, glamorous black-and-white movies. The orchestra revs up George and Ira Gershwin's "Fascinating Rhythm;" Ginger's image is projected on a huge screen made to resemble a gigantic frame of celluloid; and a three-man company of dancers enters, tap-tap-tapping in a wonderfully energetic welcome to an also-tap-tap-tapping Anna Aimee White as Ginger.

Away we go!

Unfortunately, that's about as fascinating as this ritzy, glitzy extravaganza gets. Oh, there's plenty of excellent singing and dancing, with magnificently lit sets that miraculously morph. There are plenty of special effects and impressive costumes. But at the center of all this shine and sparkle is a dull, dowdy rag of a book which ultimately tells us little about Ms. Rogers and effectively prevents us from caring a whit about her.

Rogers' story could be interesting. Raised by a mom who had experienced a taste of Hollywood life herself, teenage Virginia was determined to dance her way right out of Texas and into stardom. Feeling that her name suggested more a state than a star, she became "Ginger" after winning a local talent show which launched a touring career. Her talents quickly landed her on Broadway and then propelled her to Hollywood stardom, not only as Astaire's partner, but as a serious actress who won an Oscar for 1940's Kitty Foyle. Determined, hard-working and gutsy enough to stand up to studio bosses, she created an impressive career just as she created a mess of her personal life, with five failed marriages and a love-hate relationship with her mother.

There. Now you know as much as I do about Ginger Rogers, and I sat through a 2 1/2 hour show to learn that—and you probably feel as emotionally connected to her after reading my summary as I did after spending an evening at the theater.

Co-creators Christopher McGovern and Lynnette Barkley, director Scott Schwartz and choreographer Patti Colombo have put together some nifty staging and a skilled and energetic cast. The show looks beautiful. The music—period classics by the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern, with some of McGovern's originals mixed in—is driven by a solid orchestra conducted by Tim Robertson.

But McGovern's book, rather than fueling all that liveliness, deadens it. It's an artless, clunky contrivance which attempts to install the story of Rogers' relationship with her mother, Lela (a capable Heather Lee), as the heart of the piece. But their relationship isn't developed in a legitimate and substantive way. McGovern's book is not so much a story as it is a device, and although it provides a structural map, it actually gets in the way of involving us emotionally. There may be a story, but it has no guts.

Surely there's some fine singing and dancing. Matthew LaBanca, James Patterson, Benjie Randall and Christianne Tisdale constitute a quartet which does the work of a company of 20. They each give us glimpses of a variety of characters whose lives have intersected with Rogers', in ways big or small. They are all skilled performers, and although they, too, are sometimes victims of a less-than-perfect script, they each contribute their talents to an entertaining mix of song and dance.

And entertainment is what a show like this is really about, right? Then dispense with the flimsy biography, and just entertain us. Don't give us Ginger's story. Give us Ginger.

Unfortunately, Ms. White doesn't. It's not all her fault; since the book doesn't develop her character adequately, and because it tells its story episodically, there's little opportunity for the actress to mine the character's depth in our presence. Although she has to fight a weak script, it's White's job to build a character we can care about out of thin air, if that's all she has to work with. White dances very well and sings admirably, but she ultimately gives us only an idea of who Ginger is. And it's much harder to connect emotionally to an idea than to a real flesh-and-blood person.

Backwards in High Heels is a co-production of four regional professional theaters: Asolo Repertory Theatre in Florida, San Jose (Calif.) Repertory Theatre, and the Cleveland Play House, in addition to ATC. Because of the expense of putting together a show like this, there is a growing trend in which theaters pool their resources to create such a production and then plug it into each of their seasons. Backwards in High Heels has already had a run in Florida and will find a home in San Jose in November and December, and in Cleveland in January.

If you're willing to settle just for some decent entertainment, as this is, rather than a moving portrait of Ginger Rogers, then this show will fill the bill. But if you're looking for an experience which pleases not only the senses but also penetrates the heart, keep looking. A weak script renders this Ginger flat-footed.

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