When staging a show of any kind, it’s a good idea to know what your “money shot” is. That’s the moment that everyone has come to see, the scene for which they have the highest expectations. And woe to you if you don’t deliver it.
When the title of your evening is Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical, you have to know that the audience is drooling for a live recreation of the magic Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire displayed on the ballroom floor. Instead, what this production at the Cleveland Play House provides is a tiresome, cliché-ridden trudge through Ginger’s career, starting at birth (her mother felt her daughter’s toes dancing in the womb!) to Roger’s Oscar for her dramatic role in Kitty Foyle.
Christopher McGovern, who is the author of everything on stage, including four original songs, would have had a middling career in Hollywood about 80 years ago, grinding out minor musicals loaded with stock characters. His dialog is flat, obvious and entirely predictable. Yes, someone actually says “Hollywood’s a mean place and it’s a hard world.” Just in case you hadn’t ever heard that before.
McGovern weaves various old standards into this banal storyline. For instance, Ginger’s multiple marriages are dispensed with in a cutesy version of Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners (and Dance).” Never mind that there might have been some emotional baggage attached to those matrimonial arrivals and departures.
To be frank, Ginger Rogers was a tough, sexy broad who esaayed a brilliant career, but she comes off in this show as a dancing doll with domineering mother issues. Issues that are resolved, as is everything else, with laughable ease.
Played on an essentially bare stage with some flats rolled on for specific scenes, it seems as if the director Scott Schwartz and scenic designer Walt Spangler are setting us up for a glorious surprise. Surely, when Fred and Ginger finally are allowed to dance together, the stage will be transformed into a ballroom dreamscape.
But no, the money shot in this show just turns out to be loose change, as Fred and Ginger dance in their familiar duds, but minus any staging that would transform the moment into something truly memorable. Perhaps this would have been the best time to strike up the tune “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
As Ginger, Anna Aimee White dances well and sings serviceably, but McGovern’s determinedly hollow libretto never allows her to turn Ginger into a fully dimensional woman. Matthew LaBanca has a bit of the Fred look, but comes nowhere near the genius’s fluid moves and quirky singing voice. Heather Lee, as Ginger’s mother Lela, plays a down-market stage mom who often states facts (“Ginger was willful and headstrong”) that would be better off inferred.
Playing multiple roles, Christianne Tisdale, Benjie Randall and James Patterson are humorous at times, but are only cringe-inducing when they attempt to impersonate Hollywood stars attending one of Ginger’s parties. Where is Rich Little when you need him?
This production, done in partnership with three other theater companies, is making the rounds across the country. At least they’re sharing the pain.
Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical
Through January 30 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000