By Pat Robbennolt
Backwards In High Heels, now playing on the Mainstage of the Cumberland County Playhouse, is a nostalgic tribute to Ginger Rogers. The show gives us a backstage look at this remarkable, multi-talented entertainer and at musical theater in the 1930s.
It opens and closes at the 13th Academy Awards celebration in which Rogers is presented the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in the film Kitty Foyle, a film not depending on her ability as a dancer nor her collaboration with Fred Astaire.
Set designer Tom Tutino has created a simple, yet formal, arcade allowing actors to enter from several directions. On display, as the audience enters, are the Oscars in side arches. Film clips showing Rogers and Astaire deepen the illusion of times past. Director/Choreographer Jeremy Benton, assisted by Britt Hancock and Leila Nelson, has created a memorable stylized period piece tracing the ups and downs of Rogers’ life.
Jessica Wockenfuss portrays Ginger Rogers from a toe-tapping teenager through her career as partner to Fred Astaire. From amazing tap dancing to her seemingly effortless yet skillful precision in dance with Astaire, she is amazing.
Douglas Tieman, as Fred Astaire, is a strong leader who does indeed force Wockenfuss to dance “Backwards In High Heels.” He is, of course, paid twice as much for moving forward. Awareness of inequities determined by one’s sex was developing.
It is always a treat to have Playhouse Education Director Weslie Webster grace the stage. In this show, she plays Lela Rogers, Ginger’s mother, who tells us her daughter could dance before she could walk. Two of her songs, “Baby Face” and “You’ll Never Know,” reveal the depth of her love for her talented daughter. Protective rather than pushy as a stage mom, Webster brings us Lela Rogers as a determined dynamo who is ever supportive of her daughter. Wockenfuss and Webster skillfully portray the mother-daughter tension that is central to the show. Yet, their duet of “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” speaks of their shared confidence in Ginger’s career.
Thanks go to Jim Crabtree and Jeremy Benton, for giving performance opportunities to several recent graduates of a variety of theater programs. Carly Amburn returns as Louise, Ginger Rogers’ assistant. A memorable moment comes as Playhouse veteran Daniel Black dances with her. Hilariously, Amburn is an unresponsive rag doll of a partner.
Another recent graduate is Colin Cahill, an ensemble dancer. John Dobbratz brings his new MFA degree to several roles in addition to his part in the ensemble. Tieman, Cahill, Dobbratz and popular Playhouse family returnee Britt Hancock create a skillful dance ensemble. They bring energy and style as well as talent to their stage presence. Playhouse veterans Austin Price, Hancock and Black as well as Tieman, Cahill, and Dobbratz appear briefly as Rogers’ five husbands.
Two other Playhouse regulars bring spice to the performance. Lovely Lindy Pendzick adds many powder puffs of makeup. Jason Ross shows off some of Rebel Mickelson’s remarkable dresses in his ridiculous incarnation of Ethel Merman, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich. Regular denizens of the Playhouse greet Ross with joy in whatever role he plays.
Music Director Ron Murphy and his eight-piece pit orchestra bring the audience into the era with “Fascinating Rhythm.” The eighteen song and dance numbers keep the pace of the show moving and the audience, of whatever age, tapping toes to songs of the '30s.
Nashville critic Jeffrey Ellis, who was present on opening night, comments in his review: “Backwards In High Heels is a complete and wonderfully satisfying night of theatre that combines cherished standards with new original songs, a compelling play and stunning dance sequences to fashion a unique new way of story telling.”
Sponsored by Uplands Village in Pleasant Hill, Backwards In High Heels plays through Nov. 2. Do call for your tickets. It is a not-to-be-missed production of the Cumberland County Playhouse.