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'Backwards in High Heels'

Ginger Rogers will always be remembered as the cool, lithe blonde in the arms of Fred Astaire. But did you know she started as a dancer in vaudeville after winning a Charleston contest at age 15? That her first success on Broadway was in a show with Ethel Merman? Or that she won an Academy Award for best actress in 1940 in the dramatic tearjerker “Kitty Foyle”?

The amazing, real-life adventures of Ginger Rogers — all set to music — are the subject of “Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Rogers Musical,” opening Friday, Sept. 12, at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, First and Hargadine streets, Ashland. 

“Backwards in High Heels” was conceived and developed in 2007 by Lynette Barkley and Christopher McGovern, with book, musical arrangements and original songs by McGovern. It takes its title from a widely quoted quip from a 1982 “Frank & Ernest” cartoon about Astaire and Rogers: “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did — backwards and in high heels.”

The show features music from the '30s — the heyday of the Hollywood musical — to showcase the major events in Ginger Rogers’ life. Dance numbers are set to such classics as “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “Babyface,” “We’re in the Money” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

Curtain is at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays, and 1 p.m. Sundays at OCT through Nov. 9. A low-priced preview performance will be offered Thursday, Sept. 11. Preview tickets cost $19. All other tickets cost $33 to $37. Tickets and information are available at www.oregoncabaret.com or 541-488-2902. Dinner reservations begin at 6:30 p.m. for evening shows; brunch begins at 11:30 a.m. for 1 p.m. matinees. Appetizers, beverages and desserts do not require reservations.

Christopher George Patterson is the production’s director and choreographer. John Taylor is music director.

“Backwards in High Heels” doesn’t shy away from some gritty moments in the star’s life. Rogers first married at 17 and had five husbands. There also was her sometimes-rocky relationship with her strong-willed mother, who managed her career. Lela Rogers had been a screenwriter and a producer in Hollywood and had the connections to open doors for her talented daughter.

“This show has a lot of the same elements that the Broadway musical ‘Gypsy’ has,” Patterson says. “If you like that show, you will like ‘Backwards in High Heels.’ But the mood doesn’t stay dark too long. Much of the show focuses on the years Ginger Rogers partnered with Fred Astaire. This is definitely a feel-good show.”

“Backwards in High Heels” features Kelsey Stalter as Ginger Rogers and Renee Hewitt as her mother. Christie Dabreau, John Ramsey, Robert Arthur Altman and Tim Fuchs play multiple roles as the many people who played important parts in Rogers’ life story.

Hewitt is the only local actor in the production. The rest of the cast members, all veterans of the New York theater scene, are making their Cabaret debut.

“We did auditions in New York,” Patterson says. “I knew many of these performers already and knew how well they can act, sing and dance. The show demands a lot of tap dancing.”

Patterson promises some production surprises and a new look at the Cabaret with “Backwards in High Heels.” There will be a silent movie scene as well as video projections to recreate the '30s era.

Set and lighting design is by Craig Hudson, and Mitch Weisbrod designs the projections.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer who lives in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.