Ginger (and Fred)

I tried going to see Backwards in High Heels backwards in high heels.

It didn't work. I am not cut out for the life of reverse drag. I sat in my car in the Florida Stage parking lot in Manalapan, surrounded by the luxury metal and sensible people you usually find in that part of the world, and nervously changed out of my manly lace-ups and into these slinky, strappy, red things from Liz Claiborne. Then I got up.

Glancing down, I had this thought: Wow! I look pretty!

On the heels of that: This is fucking impossible!

I tried getting my balance and did a tentative backward walk around the car. Nope. Not happening. If I continued wearing these things, I would soon become a liability. There are stairs inside of Florida Stage, wide ones, crowded with aging rich folks with locomotion issues. If I stuck to my plan, this would turn into a bloodbath. I would bob and weave and crash my way into these poor people, and down we'd a'tumble. A musical biography of Ginger Rogers is not an appropriate setting for a mosh pit.

Sadly, mournfully, my dream of becoming the world's first method-critic dying softly on the cool Palm Beach breeze, I changed back into my manly lace-ups and slouched toward the theater, wondering how in the hell I could possibly get into the spirit of this play if I couldn't even get into its shoes.

This proved not to be a problem. Backwards in High Heels does not require much from its audience. We need neither think nor feel our way into it; the show reveals itself with no prompting from anyone. Set to a score of tunes from every phase of Ginger Rogers' showbiz career, selected for their lyrical correlation with various events of the actress' life (no matter how faint), Backwards in High Heels immediately begins smacking its audience with big, sloppy nostalgia kisses, and it does not let up. Those sticky smackeroos keep coming, whether you need them or not.

The story begins with 15-year-old Ginger tapping madly around her room. Her mother wants her to go to sleep, but Ginger cannot help herself — she's got rhythm! She sings about this, introducing the show's first Christopher McGovern original — a song called "Tame These Feet," which is, to this reviewer's ears, the equal of any of the score's better-known Gershwin/Berlin/Kern songs. As Ginger sings, she dances. And so it goes.

We are rapidly treated to snapshots of Ginger on the Orpheum circuit at the outset of her career. She dances; mother hounds her; she is successful at every engagement; mother hounds her. Then on to Broadway, where she sings, dances, and gets hounded by mother, who one rapidly realizes is a little nuts.

Then we get to the icky subject of Ginger Rogers' failed romances, of which there are many (Rogers had five — five! — husbands, a number edging uncomfortably close to Liz Taylor territory). Only the first, Rogers' brief marriage to Jack Pepper, is explored in any detail: We are to believe that her other husbands were cut from more-or-less the same cloth (making them drunken, inconsiderate layabouts).

Obviously, the show's biggest moment — the biggest payout for the nostalgia junkies who've turned the world premiere of Backwards in High Heels into Florida Stage's most successful production of the season — is the introduction of Fred Astaire. The relationship between Astaire and Rogers was a complicated one. The two dated for a while on Broadway, long before their professional pairing in Hollywood, and the dynamic they shared during their Hollywood years is worth exploration in a play all its own (preferably not a musical). Backwards in High Heels tends to simplify the whole situation, but weirdly enough, the simplification doesn't seem like a cheat. It merely focuses our collective attention on Ginger all the more.

And that's all to the good, for Florida Stage has found an utterly delightful Ginger Rogers in Amber Stone. She's a wonderful dancer, especially when tapping, and she's got a beautiful alto voice that, by show's end, blossoms into an attractive, multicolored instrument of surprising power. Also: Stone is a very, very beautiful woman. Stunningly so.

All of the best things about Backwards in High Heels have to do with the ladies. Aside from Ginger, there is her mother, Lela, that wild, affection-starved harpy with abandonment issues and, beneath it all, a heart of gold. Lourelene Snedeker nails, delivering a heart-stopping, show-stealing "Baby Face," transcending the sparkly superficiality of the production and proving that there's still soul at the bottom of these old showbiz warhorses. And Erin Maguire, who makes brief appearances as Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Jacques Bergerac, and others, is instantly and effortlessly hilarious. Her take on Ethyl Merman singing "I Got Rhythm" is surreal: Watching Merman's big voice come out of Maguire's tiny body is like seeing an especially good magic trick.

The men don't fair quite so well, especially Jeremy Benton. Benton's a fine actor who's usually wonderful in this type of performance, but his voice isn't big enough to do a credible Astaire, and his tapping — well, the comparison wouldn't be kind to anybody.

The other men, Dirk Lumbard and Brendt Reil, are basically unimpeachable, but there's a certain ineffable something that doesn't click about their ensemble singing. This may be a question of mixing: Florida Stage has for some reason opted to mic singers during their solo spots but to allow the chorus numbers to go unamplified (or at least that's how it sounds). This creates a weird, jarring sonic disparity between the songs that should, and could, be fixed with a little inventive knob-turning.

It is worth noting that Backwards in High Heels is easily the biggest and trickiest spectacle offered by Florida Stage this season. There's quick-change lighting, strobes, trick props, and a stage that pulls double duty as a lazy Susan (used to great effect). I'm glad Florida Stage decided to go all-out on this one. Although Backwards in High Heels is unlikely to ever be of great social significance or even to teach Rogers fans anything they don't already know, it certainly succeeds as intended: It's a pleasant time warp to the golden age, when showbiz giants roamed the Earth. Backwards in High Heels should delight anybody who misses those days, even if they never lived through them.

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Brandon K. Thorp