BWW Reviews: Ginger Rogers Dances Onto the Stage Via BACKWARDS IN HIGH HEELS at CCP
Truth be told, Ginger Rogers never actually uttered the quote most often attributed to her-"Sure he was great, but don't forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards…and in high heels!"-and which provides the title for "the Ginger musical" now onstage at Cumberland County Playhouse in a witty, sparkling production directed by Broadway veteran and Tennessee native Jeremy Benton.
Surprisingly, the quote comes from a 1982 installment of the Frank and Ernest comic strip by cartoonist Bob Thaves. Making reference to Ginger's longtime film collaborator Fred Astaire, Thaves paid tribute to the woman who did everything Fred did, but with decidedly more challenges. That the quote is often attributed to Rogers (and scores of other well-spoken women including Ann Richards and Linda Ellerbee) is testament to her worldwide appeal and the continuing legacy of her award-winning film achievements.
You don't have to be a fan of Rogers' films or to know that she helped introduce some of George and Ira Gershwin's most enduring songs, to revel in the confectionary Backwards in High Heels, although certainly by curtain you'll count yourself among her loyal legions. Ginger Rogers' story is uniquely American, universal in its scope and enormously entertaining in its revelatory presentation of her legendary, starry existence-even if book writer (and show creator) Christopher McGovern plays fast and loose with many of the facts, no doubt employing plenty of creative license in order to make Ginger's tale more accessible and engaging.
It's debatable, though, that you really need anything other than a straightforward retelling of the story of Ginger Rogers' meteoric rise to that peculiarly Hollywoodland stardom that she achieved in order to make her musical more compelling. If anything, it simply muddies up the issues pertaining to the life of one of filmdom's greatest stars.
McGovern creatively opens and closes the musical with an image that evokes all the glitter and glamor of old Hollywood: the presentation of the Academy Awards in 1941, the year that Ginger Rogers beat out such adversaries as Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine and Martha Scott for the best actress Oscar for her performance of "knocked-up shopgirl" Kitty Foyle. Winning the coveted award (interestingly, this was the first year that the Academy chose to reveal the award winners at the dinner feting them instead of revealing winners in a press release prior to the event) gave Rogers added gravitas as a dramatic actress, helping her to move past the lavish movie musicals that helped to make her a star.
That particular moment in time also provides Backwards in High Heels with the ideal entrée to the deeper story of what propellEd Rogers forward in her career pursuits, highlighting the emotional partnership she shared with her mother, Lela, and the complex and sometimes confounding relationship that kept the two women's lives intertwined even years after their deaths (Ginger's ashes were interred in the same cemetery where her mother was buried).
The mother-daughter relationship between Ginger and Lela Rogers provides the dramatic conflict and foundation for Backwards in High Heels and, in retrospect, a more accurate subtitle for the musical could be "The Ginger and Lela Musical." In fact, Lela's story provides as much dramatic fodder for the show as does Ginger's-but make no mistake about it, this is no simple retelling of a stage mother turned monster. Rather, the story of Lela Rogers and her preternaturally talented daughter Virginia, more descriptively, is one of a dynamic, supportive mother working to ensure that her daughter achieves her own dreams. Lela, quite frankly, is the furthest thing from a stereotypical, Medea-like, eating-her-young stage mother that you could imagine, although her story could well be considered a proto-feminist tale in the same way as Medea.