Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fancy Footwork

Many shows have featured great moments of tap dancing.  Why?   A good tap number can stop the show cold. Tap dancing also makes audiences happy. Very, very happy.


In 1974, when I attended a performance of Jerry Herman's new musical (Mack and Mabel) during its tryout at the the Los Angeles Music Center, Lisa Kirk's big number, "Tap Your Troubles Away," offered a biting contrast to former star Mabel Normand's descent into drug addiction. The lyrics are as follows:

"Tap your troubles away
You've bounced a big check
Your mom has the vapors
Tap your troubles away
Your car had a wreck
They're serving you papers
When you're the one that it always rains on
Simply try putting your Mary Janes on
Your boss just gave you the axe
There's years of back tax
You simply can't pay
Lf a sky full of crap
Always lands in your lap
Make a curtsey and
Tap your troubles away.

Tap your troubles away
You're sued for divorce
Your brother gets locked up
Tap your troubles away
You're fat as a horse
And find that you're knocked up
When you need something to turn your mind off
Why not try tapping your poor behind off?

Your boat goes over the falls
The plane you're on stalls
The pilot yells "pray"
When your parachute strap
Is beginning to snap
Smile a big smile
And tap, tap, tap your troubles away.

When the wolf's at the door
There's a bluebird in store
If you glide cross the floor
Till your ankles get sore
Just tap your troubles away!"

* * * * * * * *
All of this attention to tap dancing is, of course, a lead-in to discussing the San Jose Rep's staging of Backwards In High Heels: The Ginger Musical. A four-way co-production with Asolo Repertory Theatre, Arizona Theatre Company, and the Cleveland Play House, this energetic musical biography features a cast of six gung-ho performers who give their all. The show's title derives from Ginger's caustic description of her partnership with Fred Astaire: "I do exactly what he does for half the money, and I do it backwards and in high heels."

Anna Aimee White as Ginger Rogers (Photo by: Tim Fuller)

Unfortunately, Lynette Barkley and Christopher McGovern's musical has trouble overcoming some structural obstacles. The first act is top heavy with exposition and could easily sustain 10 minutes in cuts.

Unlike Gypsy: A Musical Fable (which chronicles the birth of Gypsy Rose Lee's career) or Funny Girl (which follows the personal struggles of Fanny Brice), Backwards In High Heels cannot rely on an ugly duckling's transformation to win the audience's sympathy. Instead, Ginger Rogers is depicted as a talented, ambitious, and aggressive young woman pursuing stardom over the objections of her overly protective mother. Determined not to take "no" for an answer, there is a coldness to Ginger Rogers that constantly prevents the audience from taking her to their hearts.

A woman who never lacked confidence, Rogers was famous for insisting that she be paid on an equal basis with her dance partner, Fred Astaire. She also defied the advice of friends and family by insisting on starring in Kitty Foyle (a dramatic role which won her the Academy Award for Best Actress).

Christianne Tisdale and Anna Aimee White  (Photo by: Tim Fuller)

The performance I attended suffered from the kind of excessive amplification that borders on the pain threshold. There were also some moments which literally screamed out with historical inaccuracy.

While it's true that Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman appeared together in the original cast of Girl Crazy, by that point Rogers had already appeared as Babs Green in Top Speed and was a seasoned Broadway performer. Merman, on the other hand, was making her Broadway debut after performing at private parties, in nightclubs, and on vaudeville programs at the Brooklyn Paramount and Palace Theatre. Director Scott Schwartz had Christianne Tisdale (who impersonates Merman, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn in the show) accentuate the Merm's famous technique of scooping her notes. The only problem is that Merman didn't start singing that way until later in her career.

The three men in the cast (Matthew LaBanca, Benjie Randall, and James Patterson) portray an army of Ginger's former dance partners, stagehands, worthless ex-husbands, and Hollywood types (including Jimmy Stewart, Fred Astaire, and choreographer Hermes Pan). While Anna Aimee White gives a tough performance as Ginger Rogers, there is a coldness to her portrayal that keeps the audience at bay.

The brunt of the evening's drama is borne by Heather Lee as Ginger's strict and cautious mother, a tight-lipped woman who finds it almost impossible to give her daughter the kind of praise that would mean the world to a star who is drowning in the public's applause and adulation. Backwards In High Heels continues through December 19 at San Jose Rep. Here's the trailer:

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