“Backwards in High Heels” – Arizona Theatre Company

This review aired on KBAQ October 11, 2010


Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center
Phoenix, AZ

Ginger Rogers’ life establishing her movie career wasn’t that fascinating. So the new stage musical biography, “Backwards in High Heels,” presented by Arizona Theatre Company, doesn’t work. Couple Rogers’ uninteresting story with a lackluster production and you never get a hint of why her famous routines with Fred Astaire became Hollywood legends.

The biggest drawback is Lynnette Barkley and Christopher McGovern’s miserable script. It begins when the 16-year-old Texas tap dancer breaks into vaudeville. It meanders through her stage career that touched Broadway, and then explores her Hollywood time until her 1940 Oscar win for her departure role in “Kitty Foyle.” “Backwards in High Heels” centralizes Rogers’ relationship with her domineering stage mother, Lela. The authors ignore the more interesting part of Rogers’ life when she reinvented herself as a stage star after her movie career ended.

The show is constructed as a dull timeline. Rogers is painted as a petulant, know-it-all kid who always got her way. Nothing happens except her constant career progression. According to the authors, there are no setbacks, nothing gets in her way, and Rogers’ reported hard work is never demonstrated. It breezes through her six unsuccessful marriages in a weak musical number and it never explains why Rogers was an awful judge of character. When we get the famous dancing pairing we learn nothing of the reported conflict between them.

As if the biography portion of “Backwards in High Heels” isn’t bad enough, the poorly executed and conceived production numbers fail to provide any clue of how Rogers developed her talents, nor does it present anything about why her routines were adored. The ineptly staged production, by Scott Schwartz, and Patti Colombo’s colorless choreography never display the grandeur, passion, and elegance of any numbers. Ponderous sets fail to capture the feel of the ‘20s through ‘40s period and no Astaire numbers are recreated as they performed in the films. Only the costumes provide a period feel. Even Tim Robertson’s band is lackluster.

The weak cast never gives us a hint of the people they portray. Especially poor is Anna Aimee White’s Ginger. She’s a gifted tap dancer but she neither sounds nor looks like Rogers. Her portrait always stays on the surface, never letting us discover or know Rogers. Heather Lee’s Lela is stronger. At least she etches a clear look of who Rogers’ mother was. The other players dance acceptably as they portray other people who crossed Rogers’ life but Matthew LaBanca’s Astaire is flat.

“Backwards in High Heels” drags on through October 24. For tickets, call the Arizona Theatre Company box office at 602-256-6995 or order tickets online at www.arizonatheatre.org.

Grade: D