Saturday, August 4, 2012

Backwards in High Heels

Just last week, Cumberland County Playhouse opened another musical on their Main Stage. Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical is exactly what it says it is. The story of the ever famous, ever elegant Ginger Rogers. The title of the show comes from a quote that Ms. Rogers is famous for (I only found out recently she never actually said it). She does everything Fred Astaire did, “Only backwards and in high heels.”

I’ve always had a place in my heart for the beauty of choreographed dance, but what drew my interest in this piece was the music. Much of music for the show was composed of songs by George and Ira Gershwin. I’m a sucker for the standards, Gershwin in particular. I knew that I would love this show if for nothing more than the music.

I was expecting a show more about Ginger Rogers and her most famous dance partner, Fred Astaire. Instead, I got an intense look at Ginger Rogers and her relationship with her mother, Lela. From the first scene, a fifteen year old Ginger has a spark about her and a need to break away from her small town life. Her mother, Lela, played by Weslie Webster, is raising Ginger, still known at Virginia, on her own. Lela tries to discourage Ginger’s big dreams, but you can tell it’s only because she worries about the hard life that Hollywood would be for Ginger.

The typical “stage mother,” Lela throws herself into her daughter’s career, yet she struggles to stay involved in her daughter’s live as Ginger’s audience and fame grows. Weslie Webster does a wonderful job of bringing the necessary vulnerability to the role, and yet showing what a strong and determined person that Lela must have been.

Jessica Wockenfuss shows enough versatility that she grows from a fifteen year old Virginia Rogers to an Academy Award winning Ginger Rogers, and she does it convincingly. While she both acts and sings with grace, Wockenfuss’ talent lies most prominently in her dancing ability. From her first dance steps on stage, I wanted to watch what she was doing.

Jessica Wockenfuss & Douglas Tieman as Fred & Ginger
Picture courtesy of Cumberland County Playhouse

Playing a multitude of roles in the first act, and Fred Astaire in the second act, Douglas Tieman is also an amazing new talent to grace the CCP stage. A talented dancer, he’s also such a good actor that he convincingly plays several roles, including a lead, and I almost didn’t realize it.

Mixed into the cast was an assortment of very talented people, some new to the CCP stage, and others were staples to common CCP patrons. Britt Hancock takes on a variety of roles, including the first husband of Ginger Rogers, Jack Culpepper. Also in a variety of roles through the show are CCP regulars Austin Price, Daniel Black, Lindy Pendzick and in-house comedian Jason Ross.

One of the guarantee laughs of any CCP production is…well, anytime Jason Ross is on stage. This production is no different. Ross plays a variety of famous women in the show, including Ethel Merman. Strangely enough, while these cameos got plenty of laughs, even from me, they felt slightly out of place in the show. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to have women (or a single woman) to play these roles instead. Not to say anything bad of Jason Ross and his acting ability, because he shines on stage every time he’s there. I just wonder about the casting choice in general, as it felt a little odd to me.

While I’m sure that book writer Christopher McGovern took more than a few liberties with this portrayal of Ginger Rogers’ life, it was nevertheless beautifully staged and directed by Jeremy Benton. This show is worth the time. The two main stars of the show: First, the beautiful and tumultuous relationship between Ginger Rogers and her mother, Lela. Second, the dancing. Combined, you get a beautiful production and something that will sweep you away to a different time, and isn’t that what any good musical should do?

Backwards in High Heels is on the Main Stage at Cumberland County Playhouse thru November 2nd, so you have plenty of time to catch it. You can buy tickets HERE or by calling 931-484-5000.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome review, Cara. And just wait 'til you hear Douglas play the bluegrass fiddle in "Golden Boy"!