Bringing Ginger and Fred to Cumberland County Playhouse, JEREMY BENTON Dances Through Life
Jeremy Benton has come a long way since he was dancing around in the backyard of his family's home in Springfield, Tennessee. In fact, way back when-before he even had his first dance class with Cherri Coleman at the Springfield School of Classical Dance-for all he knew he might have even created or invented what he later learned was referred to as "tap."
His boyish energy and his constant movement had relegated Jeremy to the backyard to work off some steam and that, of course, is where his love of dance was born. Now, considering he's known in New York City as one of the best tap dancers to ever shuffle off to Buffalo, he laughs at the youthful ignorance that, mixed with unbridled enthusiasm and preternaturally boyish macho bravado, has resulted in his current status: Jeremy Benton, quite simply, is one of musical theater's consummate song-and-dance men.
This summer-when he's not in Oklahoma starring opposite Tony Award winner Beth Leavel in a revival of Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam at the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma (the cast also includes Steve Blanchard who last we saw as "Pa" Charles Ingalls in the national tour of Little House on the Prairie the Musical)-Benton's been back home in the Volunteer State, directing and choreographing a show that has become very near and dear to him: Backwards in High Heels, The Ginger Rogers Musical. Opening at Crossville's Cumberland County Playhouse on Friday, July 27 (and running through November 2, which includes a performance at the September 2 First Night Honors Gala in Nashville), Backwards in High Heels had its world premiere in 2007 at Florida Stage in West Palm Beach with Benton cast in the pivotal role of Fred Astaire.
Charming and self-effacing, brimming with charisma and polite almost to a fault, Jeremy Benton is an intelligent man, whose probing mind allows him to speak knowingly and authoritatively about a wide variety of subjects-"It's just how my mind works," he admits-but no subject is closer to his heart or more on his mind at present than his work on Backwards in High Heels. The musical production (which features many of the classic songs associated with the ethereally beautiful, yet somehow down-to-earth Ginger Rogers), is created and was developed by Christopher McGovern and Lynnette Barkley.
"Ginger was a trailblazer: She was among the first of Hollywood's leading ladies to demand fair pay and to exert control over her work to a previously unprecedented level," McGovern says.
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. Played by Jessica Wockenfuss at Cumberland County Playhouse, Ginger's tumultuous yet enduring and loving relationship with her mother Lela (played by Playhouse favorite Weslie Webster) 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.
McGovern contends that at its heart, Ginger's story centers on her complex relationship with her mother, and it's the universality of that story which makes Backwards in High Heels "relevant to all generations of children, parents and lovers of theatre and the movies."
The role of Lela, according to Benton, is essential when talking about Ginger's meteoric rise to fame because of her unyielding role in her daughter's life. "Lela wants to protect her daughter from the bad things in life, and to allow her to create her art-which is what any parent would do," he says.
"It's abouT Loving your kids and letting them go. Lela is a stage mother, certainly, but she's no Mama Rose."
So, it makes sense, Benton suggests, to use the star's Oscar-winning moment to frame the play's action. "It was one of the ultimate moments in her life," he supposes. "And the Oscar was for a role her mother didn't think she should take."
Thus, in the production at Cumberland County Playhouse, that award (which she won in 1940, in the year after Vivien Leigh claimed the award for her performance as Scarlett O'Hara) bookends the story of Rogers' life and career, which is told in flashback, allowing for theatrical interactions with an astonishing ensemble of characters from her life and films.
"We go through many time periods in her life," Benton says, and it is vital to the show's success-and the cast's rapport with audiences-that the entire evening take on a sense of lightness, the ambience of glamour and beauty that is so often associated with Rogers' seemingly effortless and altogether graceful dance duets with Fred Astaire (played at CCP by Douglas Waterbury-Tieman, a recent graduate of the musical theatre program at Nashville's Belmont University).
"The design of the CCP production is essential," he says. "It's rather minimal, but very stylish and lovely."
Benton's heartfelt connection to the piece-he's been involved in the evolution of Backwards in High Heels for five years, at least-signifies his continuing efforts to improve his craft and to mine the depths of possibilities for every project he takes on, which has been his modus operandi since he was a little boy "stomping around" in the backyard, reveling in his ability to may sound with his feet.
"I grew up surrounded my music," he recalls, but like most small-town boys his age, he was sent off to pay Little League baseball rather than to dance class. Benton's little sister, however, had started classes at the aforementioned Springfield School of Classical Dance and-while his parents traded out carpool responsibilities-he'd wait in the foyer of the school while his sister danced and twirled inside the studio.
"It sounds like something straight out of A Chorus Line," he laughs, "but I would look through this really big keyhole-the door was like a big barn door and there was this huge keyhole-and I saw them doing the kind of stuff I did in the backyard."
Subsequently, Cherri Coleman (the school's director/owner) learned of young Jeremy's dancing feet and invited him to take part in classes, with one caveat: He would have to enroll in ballet class, as well. And that is how musical theater legends are born, whether in Tennessee or anywhere else in the world, for that matter.
With the support of his family-which included his doting grandmother who, as a buyer for the Nashville-based Harvey's Department Stores would travel to New York City regularly and saw Ethel Merman in the original production of Gypsy and was in the audience when Carol Channing first played the matchmaking Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway-Jeremy's theatrical career was predestined. It wasn't long before he was headlining recitals at Miss Cherri's school, clad in sparkly, colorful costumes sewn by his grandmother.
It wasn't long before Benton, the young man, found himself auditioning for his first role at Crossville's Cumberland County Playhouse-home to some of the best musical theater you'll find outside of New York City-and being cast as Riff in West Side Story.
"I was sort of the song-and-dance man at The Playhouse," he admits. And it wasn't long before he realized that to achieve his dreams and to further his career, he would need to venture outside of Tennessee and to prove to himself that he could indeed make song-and-dance his life's career as well as his passion.
Getting cast in the national tour of 42nd Street-the show that Benton "just knew" would provide the vehicle for him did just that-and the rest, as clichés and lazy writers would have it, is history. Now based in New York City, he may not yet be a household name, but the people in the know in musical theater certainly know his name and reputation.
That reputation is what brings him back home to Tennessee from time to time-well, that and his family which includes his first nephew Dexter to whom he is a devoted, doting uncle-and he hopes to spend more time visiting and working close to his hometown to be around while his nephew grows up and shows off his own creative bent.
But for the moment, he continues to be a journeyman actor, leaving a lunchtime meeting in Nashville to go play with Dexter and visit his sister (you know, the one who was in dance class while he peeped through the keyhole), then to rush to the airport for a flight to Oklahoma to sing "Just in Love" with Beth Leavel. His Call Me Madam role ends on July 29 (two days after his stars Wockenfuss and Waterbury-Tieman open in Backwards in High Heels in Tennessee) and then he'll fly back to Nashville, jump in the car and drive to Crossville to resume work on the show, taking notes and helping his cast (which also includes CCP veterans Britt Hancock, Daniel W. Black, Jason Ross, Lindy Pendzick, John Dobbratz and Austin Price) be better than they ever thought they could be. And then he'll join the national tour of Anything Goes headlined by Rachel York's Reno Sweeney.
Self-effacing to the end, Jeremy Benton smiles as he talks about his harried schedule, but there's no doubt he realizes how lucky he is to be doing what he loves. After all, It's just another day at the office for him-the best tap dancer in musical theater-but for his admiring audiences and co-workers…well, it's a whole lot more.
- 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 www.ccplayhouse.com or call (931) 484-5000.