WINTER PARK — If you had shown up to see the musical “Backwards in High Heels” at the Winter Park Playhouse recently, and otherwise had no clue what it was about, you might very well have settled in and assumed it was a stage version of an old Hollywood rags-to-riches story.
Even if you had noticed that the young girl who loves to dance — and sneaks off to a Charleston dance contest in Texas and wins — was named Virginia Rogers (which name she shortens to Ginger Rogers), you still might have made the assumption that this was an updating of one of those old movies from the 1930s that Rogers and her legendary dance and screen partner, Fred Astaire, made to help audiences during the Great Depression forget about their troubles.
The story is light, airy, and fun, and has an irresistible lead character: a spunky young girl who dreams of stardom and takes her dancing and singing talent out on the road in Texas, a path that eventually takes her successfully to Broadway, then Hollywood. Now a star on the big screen, she eventually switches from light musicals to a serious, even controversial drama, and wins an Academy Award for her troubles.
Didn’t the real Ginger Rogers make that same kind of movie a dozen times in the 1930s?
As it turns out, of course, it’s not a play based on one of her old movie scripts, or a play meant to recreate a classic feel-good Ginger Rogers movie from decades ago. It’s a play based on the life of Rogers, and if ever a starlet lived a genuine Hollywood dream-come-true story, she was it.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Rogers’ life is the person who had the most influence on it – her mother. Lela Rogers not only loved and looked after her daughter, but was also a very strong-willed person in an era when women were supposed to assume a more subservient role behind their men. The fact that Lela had just given birth to young Virginia didn’t stop her from kicking out her good-for-nothing, alcoholic, abusive husband – at gunpoint yet! – and taking on the scary challenge of raising her daughter alone, something women just didn’t do in those days.
But what a match these two were. Virginia’s love of dancing, combined with her own head-strong views and determination to succeed, made her a virtual steamroller on the path to success. Although Lela was initially skeptical about Virginia starting a dance career, once she watched her daughter win that Charleston contest, she knew it was time to take her talents seriously and took her daughter on the road. Soon they were landing roles on Broadway alongside such luminaries as Ethel Merman, and then Lela decided it was time to hit Hollywood. Her calculations were seldom wrong.
There were certainly bumps in the road from time to time, which this very funny play by Lynnette Barkley and Christopher McGovern so cleverly and humorously portrays, including the first man that Ginger falls for – a drinker, just like her father. Lela warns her not to make the same mistake she did, but heck, when you raise a daughter as stubborn, opinionated and headstrong as you are, watch out. Sure enough, the marriage only lasts a few weeks and the divorce sends Ginger running back home to …. yes, mama, who is only too eager and forgive and forget, and move on to the next show biz conquering.
“Backwards in High Heels” charts Ginger Rogers’ success in Hollywood, including her sometimes awkward pairing with Astaire; and Barkley and McGovern also have some fun giving us a most unlikely Hollywood heroine, a woman who didn’t just meekly jump for joy at the opportunity to star in hit movies, but who demanded better pay and improved working conditions for herself and the other women on the set. They also chronicle the fact that Rogers was a person of faith who served lemonade rather than alcohol at her Hollywood parties – lemonade in Sin City? – and refused to scream out the line “Lord!” in her movie “Kitty Foyle” because she refused to take God’s name in vain, and insisted on changing the curse to “Judas Priest!”
But despite her religious views, Rogers also refused to take her mother’s advice to bypass a movie script called “Kitty Foyle,” about a woman who becomes pregnant before marriage – a highly controversial subject in the late 1930s. Was it déjà vu for Rogers, recalling how her own mother bravely raised her alone? In any event, her judgment proved correct, and Rogers would win the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1940 for that movie, beating out such legends as Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis.
What’s so much fun about watching “Backwards in High Heels” is the interplay between two very tough, smart and loyal woman, in an era when women were not always rewarded by society for those characteristics. Beautifully played by BambiEllen Fadoul as Ginger and Tara Snyder as Lela, they make it a tribute to women who served as trailblazers, simply by refusing to take no for an answer, or to stop believing in their own ability to succeed.
“Backwards in High Heels” has a cast of just six performers, and the remaining four players handle all the supporting roles, sometimes exquisitely. Katrina Johnson steals several scenes playing both a boisterous Ethel Merman and, even more hilariously, a Frenchman who woes and weds Ginger; and Daniel Longacre does a fine job as Fred Astaire, who is none too keen on being saddled with a woman who thinks she can tell him how best to complete his dance moves.
Most of all, see “Backwards in High Heels” for the stunning dance talent of all involved. Watching their graceful moves, you realize that this is exactly what live theater is all about.
“Backwards in High Heels” runs today at 2 p.m. and then Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the theater at 711-C N. Orange Ave. in Winter Park. Tickets are $10-38, and reservations can be made by calling 407-645-0145.
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