By Kay Kipling
Mother-and-daughter relationships are complicated enough, heaven knows. Throw into the mix the dangerous allure of show business, and get ready for fireworks.
That’s demonstrated in two productions that opened this past Mother’s Day weekend. The first is Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical, onstage at the Asolo Rep through May 30. The life and career of the acclaimed Ginger Rogers are the story here, but don’t expect the show to center on her longtime dancing partnership with Fred Astaire. As told in this musical by Lynette Barkley and Christopher McGovern, the most important relationship Ginger had (besides the one to her work) was with her mother, Lela, a woman with some show business experience herself.
Elizabeth Ward Land and Anna Aimee White in Backwards in High Heels.
From the moment we first see Ginger (Anna Aimee White), it’s clear she was born to dance. Her tale might be that of any stagestruck kid growing up in Texas; even in her early teens, she just wants to get up, get out and get famous. It’s a passion her mother (Elizabeth Ward Land) both understands and fears; she knows the pitfalls of the business, but there’s no holding Ginger (born Virginia) back, especially once she wins a local dance contest and gets a taste of vaudeville and life on the road.
Hard-working as Ginger is, it actually feels almost like an overnight success story here, for she quickly makes it to the Broadway stage with the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy and just as quickly from there to a Hollywood soundstage and a busy film career. But there’s always a price to pay for such success; Ginger’s is a frequently tempestuous relationship with Lela and a revolving door series of husbands (cleverly handled in the Change Partners number of Act II).
There’s in fact much to compliment about the lively staging (by director Scott Schwartz), the choreography (by Patti Colombo, gifted at telling a story in movement), and, of course, the performances. White is as high-spirited and graceful as we always expected Ginger to be from her film persona, but the show doesn’t allow her much introspection of any kind until her “11 o’clock number,” But…When? (This and three other songs written by McGovern mesh well with the score of standard Gershwin, Kern and Berlin tunes.) That means more of the heart of the show actually comes from Elizabeth Ward Land as Lela, who suffers more than her daughter at various points in their lives together.
There’s a versatile and talented ensemble cast playing a multitude of roles; it’s easy to single out Christianne Tisdale as Ethel Merman and Matthew LaBanca as Astaire, but Benjie Randall and Craig Waletzko deserve praise, too. While Backwards in High Heels is entertaining and never boring, it doesn’t have much emotional depth. That likely won’t matter much to audiences reveling in the song-and-dance bonanza.
A better-known mother-daughter-show biz story is onstage at the Manatee Players Riverfront Theatre right now—you guessed it, Gypsy. Most of us have probably seen this familiar story of Gypsy Rose Lee, Baby June and Mama Rose a number of times, but it’s still hard to beat the combination of composer Jule Styne, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and author Arthur Laurents when it comes to classic songs and dramatic/comic moments.
This production benefits from simple but sound staging from director-choreographer Rick Kerby and some overall good casting. There’s longtime Manatee Players veteran Corinne Woodland as Louise, especially convincing towards the end of the show as she finally comes into her own. There’s Samantha Quinn-Grutzner as the older June, a believable show biz baby growing up and away from Mama’s control. There’s predictably fun work from those three strippers (Cece Dwyer, Victoria Tokarz and Dawn Burns) in You Gotta Get a Gimmick.
As the long-suffering Herbie, Steven Dragon doesn’t feel a natural for the part, but he delivers when called upon. His relationship with the hard-driving but sometimes charming Rose (Terri Solomon) doesn’t always feel convincing, but in their final crucial scene together, it works well enough to touch us.
As Rose, Solomon occasionally overdoes the same gestures and line deliveries when speaking dialogue. It’s when she’s singing that she’s at her best; she’s at home in the spotlight and puts over the famous Rose’s Turn number with gusto and guts.
So what do we learn from these show biz tales of mothers and daughters? It could be “don’t put your daughter on the stage”—but what fun would that be?
Gypsy continues through May 23; call 748-5875 or go to manateeplayers.com. For tickets to the Asolo Rep, call 351-8000 or go to asolo.org.