Backwards in High Heels as well as Robert Longbottom's revised and revamped revival of Dreamgirls proved to be cause for celebration. With one's subject a Hollywood Golden Age icon and the other a thinly-veiled account of the backstage travails that afflicted Diana Ross and the Supremes, it has been a while since local stages have seen this much glamorous girl power unleashed at once.
Backwards in High Heels is the inaugural production of International City Theatre of Long Beach's 25th season. (For the unitiated, Long Beach is part of Los Angeles county, with ICT long an acclaimed part of the LA theatre scene.) This new musical, conceived and developed by Lynnette Barkley and Christopher McGovern, draws its title from the assertion that "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels."
It opens with 15-year old Virginia Rogers auditioning against her mother's will for a Texas talent show, and culminates in the grown-up Ginger winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for 1940's Kitty Foyle. Along the way, audience members are treated to often-uncanny imitations of James Stewart, Bette Davis, Ethel Merman and choreographer Hermes Pan, among others.
While Backwards in High Heels is never less than engrossing, the musical's book (by McGovern) is a straightforward, episodic affair. It's score, however, is a wonderful mélange of standards such as "Fascinating Rhythm," "A Fine Romance," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "You'll Never Know" and new songs by McGovern. Of the latter, "The Domesticity" — in which Ginger endures a brief life as housewife in her first, ill-fated marriage — and "The Sport of Art" are standouts. Only the classic "Baby Face" falls flat, especially when it is used — strangely — to recount Ginger's abduction by her father while she was an infant.
caryn desai (sic), who also serves as ICT's General Manager, directs with a sure hand and an obvious love for the period of film history recounted by Backwards in High Heels. Melissa Giattino's choreography (with an assist from Richard Schwartz) is also period perfect, and her re-creations of Rogers and Astaire's dances particularly impressive. The hollow, unvarnished stage they perform on here isn't the best aurally for the show's tap numbers, but the performers' precision shines through.
The production's small cast of six allows most of them to play multiple roles. The multi-talented Robin De Lano (who contributed music to the 2000 gay-themed movie, The Broken Hearts Club) flawlessly assays the aforementioned Hollywood divas, plus Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich. Matt Bauer is extraordinary as Fred Astaire, nailing the beloved actor-dancer's body language and coming darn close to matching Astaire's dance perfection, which is no easy task.
The heart of the musical, though, is the close, well-documented relationship between Ginger and her mother, Lela. As Ginger, Anna Aimee White is effervescent, even if she doesn't age convincingly during the approximately 20-year period covered in Backwards in High Heels. Heather Lee is excellent as Lela, tightly wound as Ginger's protector and very moving as she gradually loses control over her superstar daughter.
Lavish and evocative despite its small-scale trappings, ICT's Backwards in High Heels is well worth seeing. It plays at the Center Theatre of the Long Beach Performing Arts Center through March 21. For more information and tickets, visit ICT's official website.
About 20 miles to the north, Dreamgirls opened March 2 at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. This touring production of the contemporary classic's recent, well-received mounting at the Apollo Theater in New York — in the wake of its successful 2006 film adaptation by gay screenwriter-director Bill Condon — is running through April 4.
The current tour provided me with my first opportunity to see Dreamgirls on stage. While I can't compare it to Michael Bennett's legendary original production or any other theatrical incarnation, this version definitely delivers the musical and visual electricity that Condon sparked in his movie. Longbottom's direction and choreography are spectacular, as are the scenic design by Robin Wagner (who also designed the original Broadway production) and William Ivey Long's costumes. Indeed, the frequent, onstage but swift and invisible costume changes consistently drew applause.
Tom Eyen's captivating if melodramatic book and the songs by Eyen and Henry Krieger retain their power, and none more so than the now-iconic Act I closer "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." This production also adds the Oscar-nominated song "Listen" from the movie, but it has been re-fashioned into a mutually-apologetic duet between the Diana Ross-esque Deena (the excellent Syesha Mercado, an American Idol runner-up making her professional theatre debut) and the strong-willed-to-a-fault Effie (Moya Angela, making the histrionic most of a show-stopping role).
This Dreamgirls cast is uniformly superb, with standout turns by Adrienne Warren as the "third Dreamgirl", Lorrell; Chester Gregory, who played Seaweed in Hairspray and Terk in Tarzan on Broadway, as Jimmy "Thunder" Early (the scene-stealing role for which Eddie Murphy was nominated for an Academy Award in the film); Chaz Lamar Shepherd as the group's shifty manager, Curtis; and Trevon Davis as C.C., Effie's songwriting brother.
During the opening night performance, I sat next to a friend/PR rep for Syesha Mercado who urged me to rate her and this production "a 17 out of 10"! While I don't use a rating scale in my theatre or movie reviews, Dreamgirls at the Ahmanson is worth at least a solid 10. Run, don't walk, to catch the Dreams!
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.