That old cheek-to-cheek charm

BreAnne Murphy remembers the first time she watched Fred Astaire glide onto the dance floor with Ginger Rogers, elegant in top hat and tails.

"It always made me really happy to watch them," said the Oceano woman, who saw the famous pair while watching Turner Classic Movies with her mom. "It always looked like they were having a good time."

The local actress is not alone in her love for Hollywood’s most magical on-screen duo.

This month, she and two other local actors team up for "Fred and Ginger," a tribute to Astaire and Rogers and the classic song-and-dance numbers they brought to life in the 1930s. Performances run April 13 to April 29 throughout the Central Coast.

"We know going into this that we can’t dance just like him," the show’s creator, Gale McNeeley, said of Astaire. "What we can try to do is bring some of his style to his songs and some of his humor."

McNeeley said that "Fred and Ginger" takes a comic, nostalgic look at some of Astaire’s greatest hits — "Steppin’ Out With My Baby," "Change Partners and Dance With Me," "The Way You Look Tonight" — and other songs from the era.

Dreaming of dance

Instead of a Hollywood extravaganza, McNeeley sets the scene as a window washer daydreaming about being Fred Astaire. A posh young couple, played by real-life spouses Murphy and Chuck McLane, pick up on his enthusiasm and join in.

Pianist Betty Faas provides the music.

"Fred and Ginger" is a new direction for the 61-year-old performer, whose past theater credits include "The Wizard of What?" and "Pope: The Musical" — both political satires about President George W. Bush.

"I wanted to offer something that everybody would like, that we would enjoy doing," said McNeeley, who drew on his experiences studying tap dancing and clowning in Seattle and Italy for the play.

Just as musicals provided an escape for audiences in Depression-era America, he said, "Fred and Ginger" has its place in a troubled 21st century. The cast of "Fred and Ginger" even plans to host social "tea dances" after a couple of its performances in Los Olivos and Orcutt.

McNeeley and his fellow performers — both regulars at Oceano’s Great American Melodrama — agree that part of the appeal comes from Astaire himself.

"I don’t think anyone could capture the elegance and humor of Fred Astaire," McNeeley said. "His body was a musical instrument ... He had such amazing physical skills that he could poke fun at dancing by dancing."

Not easy to emulate

To prepare for their roles, the performers have been rehearsing at least three hours a day and poring over footage of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers hoofing it on the dance floor.

Some of the process has been improvisational.

"Even after watching the films, it’s so hard to recreate what they’re doing because it’s so fast," said Chuck McLane, who draws his dance experience from 15 years of musical theater. "They’re so great at what they do that it’s so hard to grasp the moves they’re doing."

Fortunately, he added, the trio is focusing more on the duo’s comedic flair and vocal skills than their elaborate, demanding dance sequences.

Murphy, who plays the female lead torn between McNeeley’s fantasy Fred Astaire and McLane’s "other man," said she identifies with Rogers’ dry wit and the way the actress provided a comic foil for Astaire’s gentle rogue.

She’s even learning her part of the dance numbers "backwards and in heels," as the old joke goes.

"That’s the fun part about rehearsals," Murphy said with a laugh. "They’re tapping in flats, and I have to do it in heels."

‘You just have to have that spirit’

With a focus on the golden age of Hollywood musicals, "Fred and Ginger" is sure to stir up memories, the performers said.

McNeeley said the show evokes childhood images of his German mother and Irish father cheek-to-cheek at summer dances. He and his siblings would watch and imitate them.

"When they were on the dance floor, I always used to tell people, ‘The reasons they’re not arguing is because Mother’s letting Father lead,’" the performer quipped.

Murphy agreed, adding that Astaire and Rogers’ air of romance is universal.

"Anybody can be a Fred and Ginger," she said. "You don’t have to look like them. You don’t have to dance like them. You just have to have that spirit in your heart."

‘Fred and Ginger’

8 p.m., April 13, 14, 20 and 21

World Rhythm & Motion Studio, 150 South St.,

San Luis Obispo

2:30 p.m., April 15

Coalesce A Book Store & More, 845 Main St., Morro Bay

7 p.m., April 22

Linnaea’s Café, 1110 Garden St., San Luis Obispo

2:30 p.m., April 28

Followed by tea dance,

Los Olivos Grange Hall, 2374 Alamo Pintado Ave., Los Olivos

2:30 p.m., April 29

Followed by tea dance,

The Loading Dock, 315 S. Broadway, Orcutt

$15 suggested donation