Review: 'Backwards in High Heels' at Westchester Broadway Theatre

Review: 'Backwards in High Heels' at Westchester Broadway Theatre

Nancy Sasso Janis

‘Backwards in High Heels The Ginger Musical’ tells the story of Ginger Rogers, perhaps best remembered as the dance partner of Fred Astaire. The musical was conceived and developed by Lynette Barkley and Christopher McGovern and the book/musical arrangements/original songs were written by Mr. McGovern. The production that runs at Westchester Broadway Theatre through Sept. 20 features vintage movie musical numbers as well as original songs to string together the major events in the life of the Hollywood star. The musical takes its title from a quote from a 1982 “Frank & Ernest” cartoon about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: “Sure he was great,  but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did--backwards and in high heels.”

 Ms. Rogers was born Virginia Katharine McMath and won a Charleston contest in 1925 in her hometown of Fort Worth when she was just 15. With the help of her mother Lela (Owens) Rogers, she made her Broadway debut at age 18 and quickly became a star. She moved to Hollywood and danced her way into America’s hearts in a string of 1930s RKO films where she was partnered with Mr. Astaire. She won an Academy Award in 1940 for her title role in ‘Kitty Foy’ and was the industry’s highest paid star by 1945. She made 73 movies in all before her death.

 Darien Crago plays the trailblazer in this production that opened on Wednesday to a surprisingly filled matinee audience. She dances beautifully with the show’s director/choreographer Jeremy Benton. Ms. Crago’s credits include many productions set in this era and that probably makes her even more convincing. Her dancing skills are evident in the tap and ballroom numbers and her beautiful costumes designed by Heidi Giarlo move so well as she glides across the WBT stage. Mr. Benton, who appeared in the original company of this work, calls the chance to reprise his role as one of his childhood idols “not only exciting, intimidating, but a dream come true.” Although his time on stage is limited, he did a great job while he was there, and did commendable work with the staging and choreography. 

 The strong ensemble members have more than their share of dance numbers and all of them cover various roles. Avital Asuleen is a convincing Ethel Merman and Jacob ben Widmar (‘The Book of Mormon’ on Broadway) is great as choreographer Hermes Pan and others. Matt Gibson plays first husband Jack Culpepper and Sebastian Goldberg appears as Lew Ayers and others. Ryan Steer plays Bugs Burke and others and Amy Van Norstrand (Goodspeed’s ‘Holiday Inn’) stands out among the ensemble as Ginger’s assistant Louise and others. 

 A standout performance was handed in at this first showing by Erika Amato as Ginger’s mother Lela Rogers in her WBT debut.. She brings out the strength of the woman that had such an influence on her talented daughter’s career. Ms. Amato has a terrific singing voice, dances well and has the acting ability to match. 

 Avital Asuleen (center as Ethel Merman) and ensemblePhotos by John Vecchiolla

 Avital Asuleen (center as Ethel Merman) and ensemblePhotos by John Vecchiolla

 I liked the set designed by Steven Loftus that featured large Oscar statues on either side. The musical projections between acts by lighting designer Andrew Gmoser were inspired. Jose C. Simbulan did the musical direction and played keyboards with the four musicians in the offstage pit. 

 I probably did not appreciate the show as much as someone who has seen many of Ginger Roger’s film. The audience loved “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” However, I found the details of her early life and five marriages interesting enough and of course the dancing holds it all together. 

 Pia Haas announced the upcoming shows and read aloud the names of the various groups that were in the audience. The one with many preteen members were the most vocal. My teen and I were seated next to a lovely elderly couple from New York that were a little surprised to see someone so young enjoying something firmly set in another era and we had a wonderful conversation about college, music and life in general that was filled with their wisdom. 

Since this was my first experience with the lunch menu at WBT, I am happy to report that the lunch was just as good as the dinner offerings. In fact, many of them are identical to dishes offered during evening performances, so I tried the cheese ravioli with divine meatballs and my meat-loving teen sampled the beef stroganoff.  

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