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Cape Cod author wrote a show that hums

By Parker Lloyd, Palm Desert freelance drama critic

Give the new musical "Ginger and Me" another two weeks of performances to tighten the technical aspects and build pace for a show that hums. It has all the ingredients for a winner.

The World Premiere hit the boards Friday night (February 1) on the Cal State San Bernadino campus in Palm Desert, California. The new Indian Wells Theater was a good place to iron out any problems before heading to North Hollywood in April.

The show is essentially about the relationship between Ginger and her mother, Lela Rogers. Playwright Libby Hughes (who edited Rogers’ autobiography) of Cambridge and Brewster, Massachusetts, has used the theatrical device of the paparazzi to extract information out of the mother to get the inside story about her daughter’s career and love life. Lyricist Hughes has given the most moving and substantive lyrics to the mother.

Some of her other lyrics might be called too simple, perhaps repetitive in trying to capture the 1930s in a technique similar to George Gershwin. Hughes seems to like the word "everything," which she uses in three or four songs. The songs BEFORE THERE WAS GINGER and MY ONE REGRET brought tears to many in the audience. Ginger’s secretary of 18 years, Roberta Olden, claims she cries every time over those two songs.

Gary Heath’s score has that Broadway sound

Composer Gary W. Heath’s music has a Broadway sound to the opening number, MOVIE STARS, the closing number I’LL MAKE HER A STAR of Act I, and DANCING WITH GINGER, which opens Act II. These are big numbers. For a bigger theater, a huge chorus would enhance these three numbers.

JJ Rodgers plays Ginger Rogers with the same sexual allure through 15 costume changes. The major roles in the show are solid performances. The young woman who plays Ginger, JJ Rodgers (no relation), has a remarkable resemblance and stage presence to the real Ginger. She has the same sexual allure Ginger radiated. Rodgers has a phenomenal voice and moves around the stage with total ease. Her 15 costume changes suggest the timeline from 1928 to 1977.

Marilee Warner of La Quinta, California, captures the toughness and vulnerability of Lela Rogers both in her costumes and in her songs. Warner garnered the most applause at curtain call for her amazing performance. The power shift from Lela to Ginger is defined by the color of the costumes. At the opening, she wears a brilliant Chinese red suit and gradually wears muted colors as the story progresses. In the final scene, Ginger wears red, suggesting the power shift from mother to daughter.

Many of the cast play multiple roles such as paparazzi, chorus members, World War II soldiers and girls, diners in a Paris nightclub, Howard Hughes, several of Ginger’s husbands.

Director Allen Worthy plays five parts

Allen Worthy, director and co-producer, plays five parts, including the buffoonish Vaudeville actor, Jack Pepper-Ginger’s first husband. Worthy found professional singers and dancers in LA and the desert for the show. When first meeting Hughes on Cape Cod in June, he began plans for producing the show.

Doug McDonald, the young man who plays Fred Astaire, has an uncanny resemblance to the legendary actor. Although not the magical dancer that Fred was, McDonald is more than adequate. He probably has a better singing voice than the real Fred.

When the curtains opened, the audience applauded the glamorous set. The whole backstage was covered by shimmering silver panels with flashing marquees: one with Hollywood and one with Broadway in the old style. A huge double stairway covers the back. The seven-piece orchestra is to one side. A dressing room is the other side. William Moore Jr., the set designer, gives a 1930s feel to the period set.

Choreographer, Paul Cuneo, has created some original steps for the chorus to enhance the Broadway feel. Their first big number of Movie Stars opens with a bang. Cuneo gives period panache to the whole show.

Marcy Froehlich, costume designer, created a range of costumes from the 1930s to 1970s. Ginger’s costumes are all sophisticated and alluring. Details to hats and shoes reflect the time. The major ostrich feather dress from "Top Hat" was almost an identical copy to the real one. Froehlich ordered the feathers from South Africa and dyed them an ice blue. All the costumes were stunning. The wigs and make-up by Lynda Schaeps were also true to period.

At the reception afterwards, I sidled up to the director Allen Worthy and commented on the lighting. "There are limitations in this theater. Most theatres have 100 lights. This one only has 54, so we were hampered. They will be adding another 12. There is only one follow spot instead of two, which restricts the movement of our actors," said Worthy.

One audience member said that the show reminded her of an operetta.

Too long for those "long in the tooth"?

Although perhaps too long a show for a retired audience, "Ginger and Me" is an audience pleaser. Many did not know the inside story of Ginger Rogers’ life. Sales of her book in the lobby went flying off the table.

The show runs Wed. through Sunday matinee Feb. 1-24 at the Indian Wells Theater in Palm Desert. Call 760-341-2883 ext. 14481.