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.
Benton's staging of Backwards in High Heels, which effectively captures the magic of old Hollywood via the exceptional design contributions of set designer Tom Tutino, costumer Rebel Mickelson and Sharp Edge Lighting Design, is appropriately cinematic in its style and tone and he is blessed with a superbly talented pair of actresses who bring Ginger and Lela to life with complete commitment and a thorough understanding of the story they are charged with telling.
Jessica Wockenfuss-the young New York actress called upon to bring Ginger Rogers to life via her singing, her acting and, most especially, her dancing-delivers a performance that gives her full rein of her talents, showcasing her abilities to perfection and allowing her to put her heart fully on display on the stage of Tennessee's venerated Cumberland County Playhouse. Blond and curvy (a decription free from any hint of sexism, I assure you), Wockenfuss herself looks the very picture of a star from Hollywood's golden era, her bright smile and expressive eyes giving her a period mien while also ascribing to her the identifying "look" of a timeless beauty.
She performs Ginger's songs (particularly the Dorothy Fields-Jerome Kern charmer "A Fine Romance") with the same hint of vulnerability that underscorEd Rogers' own film and stage performances (I'm not old enough to have seen her onstage in 1930's Girl Crazy-but a boy can dream, can't he?) and under Benton's tutelage, Wockenfuss is able to capture the almost inimitable grace that Rogers put on display every time she tripped the light fantastic onscreen or onstage. There is an almost ethereal beauty about her dancing-whether you're talking about Wockenfuss or Rogers-that makes every movement exquisitely graceful.
Yet Wockenfuss never exudes the fragility of a music box ballerina-nor did Rogers, for that matter-instead her dancing is robust and precise, belying Rogers' own attention to choreographic detail as certainly as it does Mr. Benton's. If you leave the theater without being a little bit in love with Wockenfuss' Ginger Rogers, you need to pony up for another ticket and watch her performance more carefully and with the practiced eye of an undeniable film aficionado.
To play Lela, Benton intelligently has cast Playhouse veteran Weslie Webster, who approaches her role with a clear-eyed vision of who the character is and what her role was in Ginger's life story. Webster refuses to take the easy route to creating a memorable characterization. Rather, she opens up her considerable arsenal of acting tools to create a beautifully conceived portrait of Lela that is multi-dimensional and wide-ranging.
You need look no further than Webster's soulful eyes to feel the warmth and the love she expresses so evocatively in her scenes with Wockenfuss and the show's co-creator McGovern (so credited with Lynnette Barkley) provides the two actresses with the ideal vehicle for an exploration of their characters' incontrovertible connection: As mother and daughters are wont to do (or any two people in a symbiotic relationship), they complete each other's thoughts-where one woman's words leave off, the other woman's begin. As presented, it's a great moment of theatricality that serves a far greater purpose than merely moving the plot along its way.
Webster's extraordinary performance of "You'll Never Know," a song introduced on film by Alice Faye (and one of my all-time favorite standards, the Harry Warren-Mack Gordon tune was introduced in the 1943 film Hello, Frisco, Hello), is guaranteed to move you (just as certainly as her singing "Baby Face" to the infant Virginia does), so eloquently does she express a mother's longing and unconditional love for her child. It's truly one of the highlights of the show's musical score, which features a collection of American pop music standards interpolated into McGovern's own laudable original score for Backwards in High Heels.
The show's score opens with the Gershwins' "Fascinating Rhythm," one of that remarkable pair's most infectious melodies that recurs throughout, and continues with George and Ira's "They All Laughed" and several other songs that will forever connect Ginger Rogers (and Fred Astaire) to the greats of American music, including "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket," "We're in the Money," "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off," "Let's Face The Music and Dance," "Pick Yourself Up" and "I've Got Rhythm" and "Embraceable You." The latter two songs are from Girl Crazy, the musical that sent both Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman's stars into the stratosphere.
But it's the Girl Crazy vignette in Backwards in High Heels that seems rather confounding: As written, McGovern has Merman as an established star when, in fact, it was her Broadway debut (Rogers had closed two weeks earlier in Top Speed, another mostly forgotten Broadway tuner, when she got the job with the Gershwins). In Backwards, Merman and Rogers perform "I've Got Rhythm" as a duet-and I could be wrong, of course, but I just don't think that's how it was done (and if you're futzing around with how songs are done, representative of their placement in original musicals, why not let Wockenfuss' Ginger sing "Embraceable You," instead of making it a duet with Britt Hancock's Jack Culpepper? And why doesn't Ginger sing "But Not For Me"? Where is that wonderful tune-which rivals the best of Cole Porter's "popular culture list" songs, with its allusions to Beatrice Fairfax-it's an egregious exclusion in my estimation.) Artistic license is one thing, but plot development isn't always made better by it. In fact, the scene could have been even more potent had it been written as events actually transpired.
McGovern also plays with reality in the scene in which Ginger is first paired with Fred Astaire (played with utter grace and ease by Douglas Waterbury-Tieman) as a dance team. The two are portrayed as strangers when they meet, but Astaire actually worked on Girl Crazy during his time in New York City. At the time of his arrival in Hollywood (although he was indeed a movie neophyte), Fred and his sister, Adele Astaire, were well-known-arguably, their pairing was just as monumental, if not more so, than Fred and Ginger's-all over the world, so it comes as a surprise that Nashville-born Hermes Pan feigned relative ignorance about Fred's stature when he introduced him to Ginger.
Despite those complaints, I am delighted to have been transported far away from the realities of the 21st century to America during the Great Depression and in the run-up to World War II. Backwards in High Heels presents an undeniably charming and entertaining two hours of pure escapism, with Benton and his estimable ensemble of actors managing to create the same sense of wonder and starstruck exuberance that movie audiences of the time must have felt every time they walked into the theater.
Benton's deft direction of the musical (which features the terrific musical direction of Ron Murphy who conducts his eight-member orchestra with his expected flair and authority, which ensures an absolutely authentic sound issuing forth from the pit) is evident throughout the production, bringing the story to life with theatricality leavened with an honesty that elevates the material. His choreography of the piece, particularly his unequaled skill when it comes to tap dancing, is reason enough to see the show.
In addition to the superb performances from Wockenfuss and Webster, Waterbury-Tieman is sublime as Fred Astaire (and effective in a variety of smaller roles to which he is assigned in the musical's first act), showing off bounteous helpings of elan and style in helping recreate some especially memorable onscreen moments. He and Wockenfuss evoke Fred and Ginger to perfection, capturing their indefinable chemistry, particularly in "Pick Yourself Up," which showcases Benton's choreography at its best.
Hancock is great as Ginger's irascible first husband Jack Culpepper, the aging chorus boy with gin on his breath, and his second act turn as James Stewart is skillfully underplayed and is all the more effective for that shrewd decision.
Jason Ross, who dons some of Mickelson's loveliest dresses to play Merman, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich, among others, very nearly succumbs to stereotypes honed by generations of female impersonators, but he wisely chooses to play the roles relatively straight, exhibiting his own understanding of each of the film legends. However, I can't help but wonder how the role(s) would be accepted by the audience had a woman played them.
Colin Cahill, looking for all the world as if he stepped right off a movie theater screen circa 1934, exudes a sexy, leading-man confidence in his ensemble roles, delivering a brief if vital performance as Ginger/Virginia's ne'er-do-well and long-absent father. John Dobbratz, Daniel Black (another Playhouse veteran who puts his wide-ranging talents to work in another focused performance), Carly Amburn (as Ginger's loyal assistant) and Lindy Pendzick also contribute much to the effort.
Austin Price, the multi-talented young CCP veteran, fares less successfully in his featured role of Hermes Pan. Price, unfortunately, plays Pan as a mincing and mugging caricature (a description that could be used, as well, for his brief turn as Ginger's fourth husband Jacques Bergerac), stealing focus far too often; a more considered portrayal would be far more effective.
Backwards in High Heels is a well-conceived tribute to Ginger Rogers and her theatrical and cinematic legacy. By focusing on her life up until 1941 (references to her five marriages and some of the music-Lela's "You'll Never Know," for example-shows some fluidity and makes a few chronological detours), McGovern and Barkley very smartly hone in on the heart of her story. It plays at Crossville's Cumberland County Playhouse through November 2 (playing in repertory with a slate of other shows), offering audiences an escapist diversion not to be missed.
- Backwards in High Heels. Conceived and developed by Lynnette Barkley and Christopher McGovern. Book, musical arrangements and original songs by Christopher McGovern. Directed and choreographed by Jeremy Benton. Music direction by Ron Murphy. Presented by Cumberland County Playhouse, Crossville. Through November 2. For details, go to www.ccplayhouse.com; for reservations, call (931) 484-5000.