Backwards in High Heels: A review

Published: Wednesday, September 16, 2015 By: MICHELLE JACOBY Source: Mamaroneck Review

In 1925, a trailblazer named Virginia Katharine McMath won a Charleston contest in Fort Worth at the age of 15. Three years later, “Virginia” made her Broadway debut as Ginger Rogers, quickly dancing her way to Hollywood and into America’s hearts with her famous partner, Fred Astaire.

“Backwards in High Heels,” playing this month at Westchester Broadway Theatre, showcases the star’s life from her toe-tapping days to her glam Hollywood life.

The show was conceived and developed by Lynette Barkley and Christopher McGovern. McGovern is the creator of the book, musical arrangements and original songs.

Rogers’ “never fail” attitude took her on an interesting road to stardom. She continued to work beside her biggest fan, her mother, Lela Owens. Owens, relying on her experience as a former performer, had different ideas about Hollywood than her daughter. This made for a close, yet strained relationship. The dynamic duo is captured onstage with Darien Crago as Rogers and Erika Amato as Owens.

Crago expresses the true vitality of Rogers. Her high-spirited personality combined with her song and dance routines bring the audience back to old Hollywood glam. Amato commands respect onstage, a natural talent with a voice to match. Their turbulent relationship leads them to some great song and dance numbers, including “Fascinating Rhythm/The Orpheum Circuit,” “Baby Face” and “All My Eggs in One Basket.”

Fred Astaire, played effortlessly by Jeremy Benton, is brilliant onstage. His natural, calm demeanor balances Rogers’ strong personality. Despite their turbulent off-screen relationship, they became a box office hit with 10 movies together from the mid ‘30s to late ‘40s. Benton’s talent goes beyond his singing and dancing skills; he directed and choreographed this production as well. Fans will love the infamous dance scene with the black coattails and Roger’s long, feathery white gown.

There are some fun surprises in the show. We are revisited by some of Hollywood greats: Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Ethel Merman. The talented Avital Asuleen plays all three icons, complete with attitude, mink coats and long cigarette holders.

Jacob Ben Widmar also plays several comedic roles in the number “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”

Matt Gibson plays Jack Culpepper, one of the first of Rogers’ many husbands. He is a young, romantic budding star turning into a sloppy drunk and bad husband in “Domesticity.”

This small but powerfully talented cast also includes Sebastian Goldberg, Ryan Steer and Amy Van Norstrand.

The show shares intimate details of Rogers’ extraordinary life. The icon eventually walked away from Astaire and went on to win an Academy Award in 1940 for her title role in “Kitty Foyle,” making a total of 73 movies and directing her first stage musical, “Babes in Arms” at the age of 74 at the Tarrytown Music Hall.

“Backwards in High Heels” takes its title quote from a 1982 Frank and Ernest cartoon: “Sure he [Astaire] was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did—backwards and in high heels.”

The show’s backstage talent is music director Jose C. Simbulan, scenic designer by Steven Loftus, costume design by Heidi Giarlo, lighting design by Andrew Gmoser and associate produced by Lisa Tiso.