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A CurtainUp Review
Backwards in High Heels
"You don't know you can't do something, until you try it."
Backward in High Heels
Photos by Darien Crago and Jeremy Benton (Photo:John Vecchiolla)
Well, the food is good. Westchester Broadway Theater, recent home to an excellent production of West Side Story, comes a cropper with Backwards in High Heels, subtitled The Ginger Musical. This low-rent, bush-league knock-off of Gypsy tells the tale of another relationship between a stage mother and her rebellious daughter, that between Lela Rogers and movie legend Ginger.

Although best known, at least at her start, as the partner of Fred Astaire, Ginger doesn't co-star with that figure until the show's second act. The first part of this derivative, humdrum musical is given over to the rise of our heroine from youngster noisily tapping away in her bedroom to Broadway entertainer trying to upstage the formidable Ethel Merman in Girl Crazy. Actually, that show did make Rogers a star (she introduced "Embraceable You") and launched her movie career.

Filling in biographical details is left mainly to mother Lela's narration. Lela also seems to be the source for Ginger's prudery and abstemiousness (lemonade is the drink of choice at her parties). Yet, although circumspect on the surface, Rogers did have five husbands and was ruthless in negotiations. At one time, she was the highest paid female movie star, battling for equal pay with men.

The musical, in trying to encompass Rogers' life and career, has its moments. Her kidnapping by her drunkard, estranged father is detailed as a silent movie spoof. Irving Berlin's "Change Partners" cleverly dovetails her various marriages, while the Harry Warren/Mack Gordon "You'll Never Know"aptly demonstrates Lela's love for her daughter. Elsewhere, such compressions are a mess, especially a party number with quick cameos by Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich.

With a book, musical arrangements and original songs by Christopher McGovern (who conceived and developed the work with Lynnette Barkley), Backwards. . . begins and ends with Rogers' acceptance of an Oscar as Best Actress for her performance in Kitty Foyle, the film that showcased her non-dancing talents and led to other, praised roles.

As she rose in the film world hierarchy, she became increasingly tough-nosed. "I'm hosting the biggest party in Hollywood tonight,"she tells her assistant, adding, "I'll have my driver drop you off at your apartment."It's remarks like that, along with "Failure is not in my vocabulary," that reveal the tough broad beneath the glamorous actress.

As Ginger, Darien Crago bites into the dialogue and though her singing is non-descript, she dances with energy and style. Jeremy Benton is not only a polished Astaire, he directed and choreographed the enterprise, highlighted by a show-stopping, extended "Pick Yourself Up.”

Erika Amato is a feisty Lela and a good singer, while the rest of the nine-member cast does double and triple duty. The five-piece band is tinny, the physical production is chintzy and the evening is almost totally indigestible.

But there is that swell dancing. And did we mention that the roast beef is delicious?

Backwards in High Heels
Conceived and Developed by Lynnette Barkley and Christopher McGovern
Book / Musical Arrangements / Original Songs by Christopher McGovern
Directed and choreographed by Jeremy Benton
CAST: Darien Crago (Ginger Rogers), Jeremy Benton (Fred Astaire), Erika Amato (Lela Rogers), Avital Asuleen (Ethel Merman and others), Jacob ben Widman (Hermes Pan and others), Matt Gibson (Jack Culpepper and others), Sebastian Goldberg (Lew Ayers and others), Ryan Steer (Bugs Burke and others), Amy Van Nostrand (Louise and others)
Musical Director: Jose C. Simbulan
Set Design: Steven Loftus
Costume Design: Heidi Giarlo
Lighting Design: Andrew Gmoser
Sound Design: Joanathan Hatton
Properties: Grumpy's Props
Hair / Wig Design: Jodi Mancuso
Production Stage Manager: Victor Lukas
Running time: Act I — 60 minutes; Act II —50 minutes, with a 30-minute intermission
Westchester Broadway Theater, Elmsford, NY, from 8/13/15 to 9/20/15
Reviewed Aug. 16, 2015
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