Saturday, January 15, 2011

Let's call the whole thing off

(Matthew LaBanca and Anna Aimee White in "Backwards in High Heels" at The Cleveland Play House. Photo by Tim Fuller.)

"Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical," at the Cleveland Play House, is a due-for-oblivion, bargain-basement musical desecration of the piquant luster that was Ginger Rogers. However, it serves a purpose as a tawdry object lesson. First and foremost, it helps us understand the reasons why some venerable religions have forbidden portrayals of its deities.

Speaking on a personal level, as founder and sole parishioner of Jews for Ginger, the show's flagrant disregard for taste, fact and smarts has sent me into a deep melancholia. The only solace is that virtually every successful show-biz icon, from Jerome Kern to Marilyn Monroe, has gone through the same form of mortification. We can only think of a handful who have escaped this fate: Irving Berlin forbade any dramatization of his life; George M. Cohan had Jimmy Cagney; Fanny Brice had Barbra Streisand; and Gypsy Rose Lee was outstripped by her Mom and Merman...

There is another useful purpose for "Backwards in High Heels." It is a shining example for theater professors across the land of how not to create a musical. Do not try to resurrect magic that's available on Netflix. Avoid squeezing original songs into the neighborhood of classic tunes by the Gershwins, Kern, Berlin and Warren. When doing a show about a musical icon, do not make the gross miscalculation of employing beloved songs associated with other icons, i.e. the first music we hear in "Backwards in High Heels" is "You'll Never Know," which was immortalized by Alice Faye. At all costs, avoid Mad Magazine caricatures of household saints like Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis and, especially, Fred Astaire.

Admittedly, the real story of the red-baiting Lela Rogers and her brilliant tabula rasa daughter is the thing of  fascinating Hollywood folklore, but ruthlessly forced into the template of "Gypsy" - that towering realization of mother-daughter angst - makes it come across as a stale leftover. Even the final image of Lela and Ginger walking offstage arm in arm gives off the waft of desperate thievery.

Pinned on the bulletin board in these groves of musical-theater academia will be Wanted: Dead of Alive posters of those notorious "Backwards in High Heels" creators Lynnette Barkley and Christopher McGovern. Down the hall, in directing and dance classes, will be equally large posters of one Scott Schwartz for grievous staging offenses and of one Patti Colombo for choreographic shop-lifting.

To the six-member cast, we offer a heartfelt sympathy card for the loss of their dignity as they face the impossible tasks of evoking the unevokable. We have high hopes that Anna Aimee White, who plays Ginger, someday will able to share her talents in a flesh-and-blood role and not a freeze-dried icon. Heather Lee's Lela somehow manages moments of reality, indicating a genuine actress behind the show's mask.

The Cleveland Play House, halfway through the final season in its longtime edifice, needs to get over its unhealthy preoccupation with the Silver Screen. The season thus far has gone from Hitchcock to Astaire and Rogers. Let's hope the upcoming production of Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful" brings us back into the world of bona fide theater.

"Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical" runs through Sunday, Jan. 30. For tickets, call 216-795-7000, ext. 4.

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