BWW Interviews: CCP's Ginger Rogers, JESSICA WOCKENFUSS and The Friday Five on Thursday

July 26
11:33 AM 2012


Inspired by's Friday Six, welcome to's latest installment of The Friday Five: five questions designed to help you learn more about the talented people you'll find on stages in the Volunteer State. Today-which is Thursday, not Friday, a fact of which I am well aware-we focus our spotlight on Jessica Wockenfuss, the lovely star of Cumberland County Playhouse's Backwards in High Heels, which opens tomorrow night (which actually is a Friday-July 27) and continues through November 2.

The blonde and blue-eyed Wockenfuss, who's personifies the term "triple threat," stars as film queen Ginger Rogers, bringing the story of her almost meteoric rise to fame to life onstage in Crossville, playing opposite Douglas Waterbury-Tieman (to whom you were introduced in yesterday's Friday Five-okay, just don't go there) and CCP favorite Weslie Webster as Ginger's loving mother Lela. It's sure to be a hit for audiences who make the trip to Cumberland County Playhouse and you'll want to make reservations for yourself (and everyone else you've ever brushed up against), thanks to the stellar cast and the direction of Jeremy Benton, the Springfield, Tennessee, native who is now known as "the best tap dancer on the Broadway."

"Jeremy is a wonderful director," Wockenfuss says. "He may be the most inspiring, focued and dedicated director I've ever worked with. He cares deeply about the show we're putting up and we've developed a very genuine teacher/student relationship as we've worked on Backwards in High Heels."

Jessica also relishes working with an actress of Weslie Webster's stature: "Not only is she a wonderful actress, but she offers me-and everyone else in the cast-such a good level of support throughout the process and in the show."


The story reveals Ginger Rogers' background, the hard work and tenacity she employed throughout the trajectory of her career from virtual unknown to an Oscar-winning actress, along with her legendary on-screen pairing with Fred Astaire. Ginger's tumultuous yet enduring and loving relationship with her mother Lela provides a great deal of the play's dramatic structure, which is framed with an evocation of one particular event in Rogers' storied life: Accepting the Academy Award for her dramatic performance in Kitty Foyle, a role her mother had urged her to turn down.

Thus, in the production at Cumberland County Playhouse, that award (which Rogers won in 1940, in the year after Vivien Leigh claimed the award for her performance as Scarlett O'Hara) bookends the story of her life and career, which is told in flashback, allowing for theatrical interactions with an astonishing ensemble of characters from her life and films.

Making her first appearance in Crossville, Wockenfuss admits, can be daunting-given the once and future stars who've made their Cumberland County Playhouse debuts-but the spirit of friendship and camaraderie that is apparent throughout the theater itself, not to mention in the town of Crossville, provides even further support and sustenance for the Maryland native.

"I was cast in the role when I went to an open call audition in New York City," she explains. "Playing Ginger Rogers really is the culmination of everything I like to do onstage."

"As an actor and as a dancer, this role is what I love doing," Wockenfuss, who is almost preternaturally warm and engaging, reflects. "And the classic songs in the show's score fit my voice well, so I'm having a wonderful time performing these American standards."

What was your first "live onstage" taste of theater? Growing up, my dance studio did an annual production of The Nutcracker. I remember loving the lights, the makeup, the costumes, and all the backstage craziness. At first it was just something fun to do with my friends, but as I got older I realized that I lived for those moments on stage. Hearing that music still gives me chills.

What is your favorite pre-show ritual? I love getting to the theatre early, listening to my iPod, and taking my time with makeup and pin-curls. It gives me a chance to relax and clear my mind. I also have a tradition of making up a silly dance with the cast to the overture of whatever show I'm doing. If I don't do the dance, I get nervous that something will go wrong during the show!


What's your most memorable "the show must go on" moment? When I was 10, I was the Clara understudy in The Nutcracker. On opening night, Clara got sick about halfway through Act 2 and left the stage. I remember my wig getting ripped off, my sister giving me a clip to pull my hair back, one of the moms throwing on the nightgown costume (which was three inches too long), and getting shoved on stage. It was a whirlwind, but somehow I managed to finish the show. That was an early lesson learned on how to be a prepared understudy!

What's your dream role? I have a few: Roxie in Chicago, Charity in Sweet Charity, Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street, Cassie in A Chorus Line...Pretty much anything that's the song and dance gal.

Who's your theatrical crush? Gene Kelly, hands down.

  • Backwards in High Heels will play on the Mainstage at Cumberland County Playhouse from July 27 through November 2. For tickets and further details, go to or call (931) 484-5000. 




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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors - the history of which can be traced to 1989 and the first presentation of The First Night Awards - which honor outstanding theater artisans from Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and also includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors recognition. Midwinter's First Night honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. An accomplished director, Ellis helmed productions of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, all in their Nashville premieres, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show. Ellis was recognized by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror. In 2015, he directed William Inge's Picnic for Circle Players and Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years for VWA Theatricals, with The Larry Keeton Theatre's production of Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest set for spring 2016.


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