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Backwards in High Heels

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Let's be frank. It's a challenge for an actor to embody a charismatic, true-life character. Why would audiences be interested in seeing a thespian of a lower wattage portray the likes of Elvis Presley, Mohammad Ali, or Marilyn Monroe, especially when there's plenty of archival film footage of these supernova talents at, before, and beyond their crescendos as one-of-a-kind stars?

After all, wouldn't a documentary a more fitting and satisfying exploration of the lives of such extraordinary individuals? (Even the popular Will Smith couldn't turn the bio-pic, "Ali" into a box-office bonanza--though Smith did receive an Oscar nomination for his characterization of arguably "The Greatest" boxer of all time.) Nevertheless, there seems to be no shortage of performing artists willing to take their turn re-incarnating famous people. (Remember Kurt Russell's rendition of Elvis many years ago? If not, we rest our case.)

But theater is a different medium than television or film. Therefore, we are more likely to suspend our disbelief when a live performer poses as a celebrated persona. It's the gestalt of the event that takes precedent on such occasions. Unlike the cut and canned performances of those other media, the theater gives us head-to-toe, flesh and blood people enacting the legends on display before us. The palpable skin, muscle, and bone on stage allow us in the audience to imagine and project in a fashion that is unique to live theater. (Perhaps this explains the appeal and success of tribute bands, the cottage-industry of Elvis impersonators, and the long-lived American Legends show in Las Vegas.)What's more, it underscores the reason why fans of dance, musicals, and Golden-Age movies shouldn't miss "Backwards in High Heels"--at Long Beach's International City Theatre, through March 21. Created and composed by Lynnette Barkley and Christopher McGovern, it's the bio-musical of the fabulous hoofer and Oscar-winning movie actress, Ginger Rogers.

Collegially and craftily directed by caryn desai (sic), with nearly meticulous choreography by Melissa Giattino, and Darryl Archibald lending full-bodied musical direction--"Backwards in High Heels" ably informs us of Rogers's life-story, from the 1920s into the 1940s. Offering two-dozen or so song and dance routines, played out on an elegant set, designed by Stephen Gifford, and reminiscent of a grand ball room of the sort shown in a 1930s Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers black and white dance extravaganza--we are buoyed and inspired by the facts of Rogers's life.

How many of us are aware, after all, of Rogers's advocacy of women's rights during one of Hollywood's early heydays? She was vocal about equal pay and marquee billing; yet her career thrived, in spite of bucking the studio system of the era. Rogers's talent and tenacity must've trumped the Tinsel Town movie machine and its moguls. Further, we are made privy to the more sordid sides of Rogers's time in and beyond the limelight. For instance, though Ginger Rogers never gave birth to a child, she was married and divorced five times, including seven year matrimony to actor Lew Ayres.

As Ginger Rogers, Anna Aimee White is radiant. Sporting a brilliant smile, along with agile dance steps and an appealing voice, we easily accept White's warmth and sweetness as Rogers's. Matt Bauer plays Fred Astaire (as well as several other characters). Bauer is lithe, boney, and evocative of Astaire in carriage and frame. Though his dance moves don't glide with the ease of Astaire (who could match this master?), we still believe his earnest portrayal.

Four other performers easily submerge themselves in various roles. Christopher Carothers exudes a Bob's Big Boy sort of charm as George Shaeffer, Lew Ayres, and others; Robin Delano is a standout as Ethel Merman, Bette Davis, and Kate Hepburn; Heather Lee is formidable as Rogers's mother, Lela; and Jeff Payton is charming in all his roles, but especially as the beloved Jimmy Stewart.

In a 1982 Frank and Ernest cartoon it was written, "Sure he (Astaire) was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards and in high heels."Not only does that memorable comic-strip quip provide the title for this show, it also speaks to the talent that was Ginger Rogers.

"Backwards in High Heels" continues at Long Beach's International City Theatre--300 East Ocean Boulevard--through March 21. Show times are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Sundays. For reservations, dial (562) 436 - 4610. For further information and online ticketing, visit www.InternationalCityTheatre.org

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.