Ginger Rogers is so closely identified with Fred Astaire, her dancing partner in pictures like The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat, that it’s easy to forget what an important figure she was in her own right. Backwards in High Heels—The Ginger Musical should go a long way in rectifying this. Now in its regional premiere at San Jose Rep, Backwards in High Heels charts the screen legend’s rise to stardom, from her girlhood victory at a Charleston contest through her time on the vaudeville circuit and Broadway, her appearances opposite Astaire and, finally, her Oscar-winning, dance-free performance in Kitty Foyle.

Along the way, we meet people like Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart, but only briefly, and even Astaire is a rather minor character (not to worry, he and Ginger do their share of dancing together). The real heart of the show is Ginger’s relationship with her mother, Lela, a bond that endures despite dramatic strains.

Troubles with men are another source of drama. In a flashback scene, Lela and her drunken husband sing an ironic and unsettling rendition of “Baby Face” while fighting over baby Ginger. Then there is Ginger’s revolving door of marriage and divorce, but she comes through it all with a smile; Christopher McGovern’s book might even be criticized for painting too rosy a picture of her life. The goal, however, is not authoritative biography but capturing the spirit of Rogers—the headstrong woman who became one of Hollywood’s first actresses to demand equal pay—and of course, to deliver entertaining song and dance numbers. These are mostly Irving Berlin and Gershwin classics, supplemented by a few of McGovern’s workmanlike original tunes.

According to Rogers, “Beauty is a valuable asset, but it is not the whole cheese,” and Anna Aimee White seems to have taken this maxim to heart, playing Ginger with skill and charming exuberance. Heather Lee is splendid as the devoted but overbearing Lela, while Matthew LaBanca looks, sounds and moves like the real Fred Astaire. There isn’t room enough to describe the large number of supporting characters; suffice it to say that Christianne Tisdale, Benjie Randall and James Patterson play them all with remarkable versatility, switching in and out of various roles with ease. Flawless dancing, powerful singing and overall energy turn this relatively small-scale production into an extravaganza, which recalls the glamorous old Hollywood musicals and makes a wonderful evening at the theater.

Backwards in High Heels—The Ginger Musical
Through Dec. 19; $35–$74
San Jose Repertory Theatre
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