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‘Carefree,’ a tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at NJPAC Nov. 4 and 5

November 2, 2016

DANCE

WHAT: “Carefree: Dancin’ with Fred & Ginger”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

WHERE: Victoria Theater, NJPAC, 1 Center St., Newark. 1-888-GO-NJPAC or njpac.org.

HOW MUCH: $65 to $85

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers pretty much said it all with their feet. But that hasn’t prevented other commentators from trying to add their 2 cents when discussing Hollywood’s most beloved dance team.

“He gave her class, she gave him sex,” is one classic description. Another popular line – it came up as recently as the 2016 Democratic convention, applied by Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton – is a favorite of feminists: “She did everything he did, but backwards and in heels.”

That, says dancer Hayley Podschun, doesn’t begin to cover it.

“And a dress, a long gown,” Podschun (“Hairspray,” “Something Rotten!”) reminds us. “Everybody’s always forgetting the huge gowns she wears.”

She’ll be channeling Ginger, as her dance partner Jared Grimes (“After Midnight”), channels Fred, in “Carefree: Dancin’ with Fred & Ginger,” a first-time collaboration between NJPAC and RKO Stage. Broadway veteran Donna McKechnie (“A Chorus Line”), David Elder (“Curtains,” 42nd Street”), Drew King (“On the Twentieth Century” and Tessa Grady (“Dames at Sea”) are also featured in the production, directed and choreographed by Tony-winner Warren Carlyle.

“My journey with this show, I start with his spirit and his energy, and throughout the show I kind of weave my way around the feeling he gave people,” Grimes says.

“Carefree” reprises some classic tunes that Astaire and Rogers made famous, in a series of movie musicals they appeared in from 1933 to 1949: “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Let Yourself Go,” “They All Laughed,” “Top Hat,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and more. A five-piece onstage band provides the melodies by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and others, and images of Fred and Ginger doing their terpsichorean thing will be rear-projected at various times.

“We’re trying to bring our own modern twist on Fred and Ginger and the classics,” Podschun says. “But what’s so great that our director Warren Carlyle has done, he’s really homed in on our specific talents and skills. While honoring what Fred and his pals had, we’re also showing the world what Jared Grimes can do. Same with me. Everyone has their moment to shine in this show.”

Fred Astaire (aka Frederick Austerlitz, 1899-1987) and Ginger Rogers (aka Virginia Katherine McMath, 1911-1995) were not exactly – to use the words of a later Astaire song — fated to be mated.

By the time he reached Hollywood, Astaire was already known as a dancing star, paired on Broadway with his equally talented sister Adele (which makes that “can dance a little” anecdote seem farfetched). Rogers, meanwhile, had cut her teeth in early talkies, playing tough, wisecracking women who knew a thing or two.

“I feel like Ginger has this tomboy quality about her that I’ve really homed in on,” Podschun says. “When she’s dancing, you see this beautiful elegant woman, but she has some zazz in her, too.”

It was almost by accident that the two were first paired in 1933 — not as stars, but as novelty dancers in a film called “Flying Down to Rio.” When they joined for a rowdy number called “The Carioca,” they brought down the house — utterly stealing the movie from its supposed headliners, Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond.

The two were quickly starred in their own movie, “The Gay Divorcee” (1934), and a new Hollywood legend was born.

They clearly had chemistry, but why? How? Evidently, it had something to do with opposites. He was plain, she was pretty. He was airy, she was earthy. He was suave, she was hard-boiled. In each of their movies – they all had slight, romantic-comedy plots – they would meet cute, quarrel over some silly misunderstanding, and then dance. And in the dance, he would court her, charm her, win her over.

“He would croon you with his dance,” Grimes says. “When you look at him, he’s the least likely hero. He’s not going to get the girl. And as soon as he moves his finger, she’s his.”

Grimes, who grew up worshipping Astaire, Sammy Davis Jr., and a lot of other great dancers of the period – Bill “Bonjangles” Robinson, John W. Bubbles, the Nicholas Brothers, among others – considers himself a more physical dancer than Astaire. But he learned a lot from Fred’s brilliant footwork and nonchalant attitude. In “Carefree,” he likes to think he’s meeting Astaire halfway.

“I’m cut for a different cloth, a more contemporary cloth,” he says. “But when [Astaire] walks on the screen, just the sheer way he walks just knocks me out. He’s like a feather, who could go anywhere he wanted to go.”

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com