The actor glides around the stage, singing, dancing, doing high kicks and eliciting laughs as he climbs up on a tall bar table in the musical comedy, First Date, now playing at the Denver Center for Performing Arts’ Galleria Theater.
Remarkably, just a few months ago, Jordan Leigh was stuck in a wheel chair for a month after a freak accident. He ruptured both Achilles tendons within seconds of one another.
Tearing one tendon after another is extremely rare and it can take up to a year to recover fully from even one rupture.
But Leigh didn’t have the luxury of time. Directors picked him for the five-person cast for First Date back in May. The accident incapacitated him in August. Rehearsals started in October. And the show was opening its 6-month run in November.
“As sensitive as actors are, we know there’s an audience and you just suck it up. I thought to myself, ‘I have to go out there.’ I owed it to the show,” Leigh said.
So, he summoned his “show must go on” grit and got busy working with his physical therapist, Maria Borg of UCHealth Sports Therapy Clinic – Colorado Center. Together, they got him back on his feet and back on the stage.
“She just puts you at ease. Her confidence makes you confident that you’re going to get better,” Leigh said. “I’m in better shape now than I’ve ever been in in my life.”
Borg recently saw First Date and, along with many belly laughs, she was thrilled to see Leigh moving so smoothly around the stage.
“He’s amazing,” Borg said. “We treat every patient like an athlete. Normally you don’t think of actors as athletes whose goal is to ‘return to sport,’ but that’s exactly what they want. Our goal is to get all our patients back to doing what they love, whether it’s a 5K, a triathlon or performing on stage.”
Both Achilles tendons just ruptured
Leigh’s accident was zany, like a great musical comedy or one of those insurance commercials where one random event leads to another and disaster ensues.
Leigh was living in New Mexico last summer and was dropping off something at a friend’s house. He was in a hurry, as we all are. He pulled over and ran to the friend’s door. Then he turned back and saw that his car was cruising away without him. He had forgotten to put it in park. So, Leigh did what any fit middle-aged guy would do. He sprinted.
“I had to stop the car.”
About three steps in, he felt the tendon above his left heel snap.
Two thoughts came to mind.
“My Achilles just ruptured.” And, “I’m not going to be able to do my job.”
Of course, there were some expletives too.
But, the car was still moving in a residential neighborhood and Leigh figured there might be some unsuspecting mailboxes, parked cars or God forbid, kids on bikes. So, he kept running.
“Three steps later – and now it’s more slow motion like a surreal dream – it was the same succession and I thought, ‘crap, now I just ruptured my second Achilles tendon.’”
This time, it was his right Achilles.
Somehow he managed to get to the car, slide in the still-open door and put on the brakes. Then he drove himself home and his girlfriend took him to the hospital. Doctors confirmed he had ruptured both Achilles tendons. They found just one similar case in the medical literature of successive ruptures. Leigh, it turns out, had suffered some lousy luck at a very inconvenient time.
“The symbolism of the Achilles being your weak spot was not lost on me,” said Leigh, who is a pro at delivering perfectly timed funny lines on stage.
The lesson, he supposes, is that we can’t all race around in a hurry all the time.
But frankly, he was in a hurry to get his surgeries and get to rehearsals.
Pro at acting, pro at healing
First Date takes place all in one night. A young couple on a blind date meets at a New York bar for a drink. The guy is a nerdy investment banker looking for love. The woman is an edgy artist who’s fearful of commitment. Leigh plays the bartender and in madcap imaginary scenes, everyone from a doting Jewish grandmother to a strict Christian priest. He gets a chance to show off his stellar singing voice and his wry humor. And he’s so light on his feet that you’d never guess that he was studying YouTube videos on how to get around in wheel chairs mere months ago.
A third-generation Coloradan, Leigh was born in Denver, then moved to Los Angeles when he was 7, where he got the acting bug and later graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in theater and acting from the University of California Los Angeles School of Theater, Film and Television.
He has performed in Denver Center productions for 17 years including a 4-year, 1731-show run in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.
Because of his long history with the DCPA, Leigh’s producers and directors were willing to work with him after the accident. They agreed to have another performer start the run and do the show for the first three weeks. Then, Leigh planned to take over.
He had his surgery on Sept. 1 and was soon in Colorado working with Borg.
First, they bonded over a love for theater. Borg’s parents were fans of both West Side Story and The Sound of Music and named her after lead characters in both.
Then they got busy helping Leigh recover.
‘Focus on what you can do’
Borg has never heard of anyone rupturing both Achilles tendons at once. Not having a good leg to stand on was tough. But Leigh had a clear goal, so they worked first on helping him bear weight on his feet.
“My mantra is to focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do,” Borg said.
As soon as Leigh’s incisions healed, she encouraged him to work on walking in a pool, where his body wouldn’t put pressure on his feet. They also worked on strengthening Leigh’s core and lower extremities while boosting his endurance.
“Then, when you’re ready to hit the ground, your whole body is stronger,” Borg said.
“Every week, we worked on adding more exercises to his repertoire,” she said. “He’s athletic and a hard worker, so he progressed well with all of this.”
They started first with relatively simple tasks like walking and balancing. Later, they practiced skills Leigh would need on stage, like hoisting himself up on a tall bar stool and balancing in the precarious spot while singing and acting.
“We used the Pilates equipment and practiced the quick step and strength he’d need to get on the stool,” Borg said.
Leigh had some very specific goals, but all patients want to get back to their jobs or their passions. Borg sees herself as the coach who can get patients where they want to go. Leigh responded well.
“I worked as hard as I could,” he said. “I knew I had to do it. There was no choice, but to get back to the stage.”
‘Stronger than ever’
First Date opened on Nov. 11 and Leigh stepped in as planned on Dec. 5.
While he still has some residual symptoms of the torn tendons, like some numbness on occasion, Leigh says he feels great on stage. The cast does eight performances a week and Leigh’s had plenty of time to work out all his moves.
“The most daunting thing is when I jump up on the bar table. I’m not allowed to jump, so I’m hoisting myself on and off that table. Because of Maria, my core is much stronger than it ever was. I feel super confident and I have no fear about re-ruptures.”
Leigh is thrilled that Borg helped him keep doing his job.
“It’s a very fun show,” he said.
Each night, he hopes to give audience members some joy and some insights about human connections.
“Oh, and I hope at least one person laughs hard enough to pee a little.