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Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical

Katharine Hepburn said about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, "Ginger game him sex and he gave her class."

Their names will always be linked for their elegant dancing in early movies. According to some writers, Rogers demanded a salary increase when she learned Astaire earned significantly more than she. She said to the studio boss, "Fred Astaire is so great. I do everything he does only backwards and in high heels." According to legend, she got the raise.

From that line "backwards in high heels," we get the title of the play Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical (though Roberta Olden, Rogers' assistant, is quoted as saying the line came from Bob Thaves of the "Frank and Ernest" comic strip not Ginger Rogers).

Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical opened in the Bolton Theatre, Cleveland Play House, January 7 and runs through January 30, 2011. This is the fourth stop for the show. It was produced in association with San Jose Repertory Theatre, Asolo Repertory Theatre and Arizona Theatre Company.

The story takes us through the early part of Ginger Rogers' career. The show starts when Rogers is 16 and auditioning for a local talent show in Texas that takes her to vaudeville. The play ends when she receives the Academy Award for Kitty Foyle. The plot works on several levels. First, the story deals with her rise from vaudeville to Broadway to film. The sub-plot concerns her on-going relationship / battles with her mother.

This script was conceived and developed by Lynnette Barkley and Christopher McGovern. McGovern wrote the book, musical arrangements and the original songs.

At the curtain call it was amazing to note that the cast has only six members. Several performers play multiple roles and do it so well it's impossible to know we're seeing the same actors as so many characters.

Anna Aimee White creates a Ginger Rogers who has spunk and the talent to become a major star. White dances as well as Rogers did. And she has a powerful singing voice that can belt a song to the rafters.

Heather Lee plays Lela, Rogers' clinging mother. Lee sings beautifully and makes this stage mother much more sympathetic than Gypsy Rose Lee's Momma Rose.

Christine Tisdale plays all of the other female characters. But her star turn as Ethel Merman almost stops the show. Later in a party scene Tisdale brings Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich to the party.

Matthew LaBanca plays several of the male roles, but he'll be remembered for his elegant Fred Astaire. Benjie Randall Plays a variety of male roles including Rogers' second husband Lew Ayers. James Patterson creates Rogers' first husband Jack Culpepper. He comes to the party scene as Jimmy Stewart.

Somehow, with a production so dependent on music, the show works well with a six-member band.

This is a superior production. Seldom do all of the parts of a production fall in place so well. Patti Colombo (choreographer) designed dances that could logically pave the way for the big dance scenes that take place in the second act of the show. Of course, Colombo re-creates dances that made Rogers and Astaire famous. However, one of the delights of the show is Rogers dancing with her husbands—they're lined up, one behind the other, in marriage order.

Alejo Vietti (costume designer) has done a superior job creating costumes that are appropriate for each part of Rogers' career and that are appropriate for Broadway and then film.

Many in the cast have Broadway experience. I expect we'll be seeing Backwards in High Heels on Broadway in a year or two.

Katharine Hepburn unfortunately isn't around to see Backward in High Heels: The Ginger Musical but I'm sure she'd agree—this production has sex appeal and class.

The show continues in the Bolton Theatre, Cleveland Play House, 85th and Euclid, Cleveland, through January 30, 1011. For performance and ticket information, call 216-795-7000, ext. 4 or visit The remainder of the season includes The Trip to Bountiful (February 4 - 27, 2011), My Name is Asher Lev (March 4 - 27, 2011) and Legacy of Light (April 8-May 1, 2011).

The Bolton Theatre
The Cleveland Play House
Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical
January 7-30, 2011
Conceived and Developed by: Lynnette Barkley and Christopher McGovern
Book, Musical Arrangements, Original Songs:; Christopher McGovern
Ginger: Anna Aimee White
Lela: Heather Lee
Martha May, Louise, Ethel Merman and others: Christianne Tisdale
Marcus, Director, Fred Astaire and others: Matthew LaBanca
Joe, Bill McNally, George Schaffer, Lew Ayers, others: Benjie Randall
Jack Culpepper, Hermes Pan, Jimmy Stewart and others: James Patterson
Director: Scott Schwartz
choreographer: Patti Colombo
scenic designer: Walt Spangler
Costume Designs: Alejo Vietti
Musical Director and Conductor: Tim Robertson

- David Ritchey

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