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Theater review: 'Backwards In High Heels' at International City Theatre

March 5, 2010 | 12:15 pm

400.BackwardsinHighHeels1 “Backwards in High Heels,” now at the International City Theatre, is an ambitious bio-musical about Ginger Rogers that treats Rogers’ life from her early days on the Orpheum circuit to her Oscar-winning turn in “Kitty Foyle.” 

The life of Rogers, a bit of a diva who achieved early success and never looked back, hardly seems super-charged dramatic fare. However, book writer Christopher McGovern, who conceived and developed the musical with Lynnette Barkley and did the original songs and arrangements, largely redresses the limitations of his subject by making “Heels” a love story – not among Rogers and her many husbands, but between Rogers and her indomitable mother, Lela, a sometime Hollywood screenwriter who found her greatest success as a stage mother par excellence.

The show features period standards interspersed with McGovern’s terrific new numbers, most notably “But…When?” – an emotion packed song reminiscent of “Rose’s Turn,” delivered from the daughter’s point of view.

However, director caryn desai and choreographer Melissa Giattino don’t always keep pace with their sure-footed material in an uneven staging that ranges from the crisp to the clunky.

Music Director Darryl Archibald helms the lively offstage band.  As Ginger, perky Anna Aimee White is a facile dancer whose voice alternates between wispiness and a strong belt. Nimble Matt Bauer renders a workmanlike Astaire – no mean feat. Lela should be larger than life, but Heather Lee substitutes subdued refinement for true grit.  Although she makes a great Ethel Merman, Robin De Lano  falters in her limp imitations of Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. Jeff Payton and Christopher Carothers, both fine in multiple roles, round out the cast.

– F. Kathleen Foley

“Backwards in High Heels,” International City Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.  8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays.  Ends March 28.  $35 to $45. (562) 436-4610. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Photo: Matt Bauer and Anna Aimee. Credit: Shashin Desai.