Sunday 28 February 2016

Cats revival will find fans meowing mightily

Backdrop to the show : T.S. Eliot in mid-Depression wrote this ditty about cats : "...Cats are much like you and me / And other people whom we find / Possessed of various types of mind. / For some are sane and some are mad / And some are good and some are bad / Some are better, some are worse / But all can be described in verse." It is from this simple observation that Andrew Lloyd Webber found tunes tumbling about in his head in 1980. Within a couple of years it would launch and become, ultimately, the fourth longest-running song-&-dance extravaganza hit on Broadway (Webber's Phantom the longest, next Chicago, next Lion King).

What more skilled lyricist to trip over your keyboard than the great English poet Eliot, he previously made famous by his existential laments The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Waste Land. Eliot's whimsical side was revealed to his godchildren Tom Faber and Alison Tandy in a series of birthday and special event poems for them and his family that by 1939 was collated into a collection titled Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. This was bedtime fireside fun for scads of Forties and Fifties parents reading to their kids in England. Of pedigreed stock, Webber grew up in London with cats underfoot, and when he thought of his pets and let Eliot's rhythms and cadences roll over in his head, he heard music aching to be born. (Old Possum was the nickname poet Ezra Pound gave to his chum Eliot, while to Eliot he was Ole Ez.)

How it plays out : Last time I saw Cats was at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre here in Vancouver in 1987 when a Canadian professional troupe spellbound audiences in sold-out houses for two-&-a-half months, pulling in some $8 million ($15M in to-day's equivalent coin). The current show at the chummy Jericho stage may lack in size and dazzle and spectacle what the QE was able to throw up, but Fighting Chance Productions' rumbustious performance is sheer escapist delight for fans of the show with its non-stop dance, cat idiosyncrasies lovingly sustained by the cast and of course Webber's earworm music. As Webber reflected to London's Telegraph last December : "Fifty per cent of the world loves cats and 50 per cent of the world hates them, and I am very happy to play to only 50 per cent of the world." Catlovers will adore this production, but even the dog crowd or animal agnostics will find much to cheer and clap about.

What makes Cats so different from normal musicals is there's no "book" or storyline as in Mary Poppins that just happens to be put to music. Instead it's a string of Eliot's original poems describing dozens of cat characters who Webber's collaborator director Trevor Nunn originally designed as a feral fraternity sloughing about a junk yard around midnight. There's fat ol' Gumbie cat; Rum Tum Tugger; Bustopher Jones; Old Deuteronomy; Skimbleshanks; Mr. Mistoffelees; and of course the show stealer Grizabella, the ex-Glamour Cat who belts out the iconic anthem "Memory" a couple of times (the only lyric not lifted directly from Old Possum).

Notionally these junk yard cats are gathering to choose one of their gang to ascend to "the heaviside layer". This is where good cats go to die but then return to earth reborn to live another round of nine lives : "Daylight / I must wait for the sunrise / I must think of a new life / And I musn't give in / When the dawn comes / Tonight will be a memory, too / And a new day will begin." Who doesn't know those words? 

Why cats, not dogs ? :  So what is it about cats that makes them just right for stage antics? Primarily because you can never tell them what to do. They don't pant and beg for strokes. They slink. They preen. They are coy and standoffish. They perform spontaneous jumpy tricks. They spin on a blade of grass then tear 90 degrees left across the garden at 30 kph for no apparent reason. They are curiouser and curiouser about stuff in cupboards or on the bookcase or even up the living room drapes. The knead their paws into your blue jeans. 

In the prologue "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats" they brag : "We can dive through the air like a flying trapeze / We can turn double somersaults, bounce on a tire / We can run up a wall, we can swing through the trees / We can balance on bars, we can walk on a war." "Jellicle" btw is a compression from the expression "dear little cat" that in some British dialect or other back-in-the-day came out as "jea' li'l cat" which Eliot just squished together into the word "jellicle".

Dogs get mad or anxious and bark. Cats meowwww as if taking offence or from royal annoyance. But cats also purrrrrr. And rub against your leg. And nap on your shoulders while you read-&-doze of a Sunday afternoon. When they wake up, they stre-e-e-e-e-t-t-tch and then lick your hair with their scratchy tongue. Later they'll sneak along behind you in the roadside weeds when you take Bowser out on a leash for his nightly constitutional. 

The fridge magnet gets it right : "Dogs have owners. Cats have staff." Thomas Stearns Eliot and Andrew Lloyd Webber are simply staff put to the task of telling their masters' tales of derring do in song, dance and cat choreography. Or as director Nunn once observed : "We are fascinated by cats for a multitude of reasons, but perhaps most of all because in a mysterious way they allow us more clearly to see ourselves."

What Fighting Chance Productions brings to the stage : For whatever reason FCP in its website page for this show identifies it as an "amateur" production. Okay, so none of the twenty-something actors, both in age and in number, have an * after their name to identify them as performing courtesy of Actors' Equity. But this ain't junior league stuff by far. The cast and production crew are all seasoned performers on Vancouver stages in opera, drama, rock bands, dance, Rocky Horror, cabaret, burlesque, music vids. A slew of the performers and production staff are Cap College theatre program grads. So "amateur"? Hardly.

The primary highlites that one comes away from FCP's production are these : the choreography of 20 actors on some 1,000 square feet of stage, less than a quarter the size/depth of the QET playing field. The costumes. The chummy set of wooden pallets, farm fencing and LED Xmas lights. Couple those production values with a cast charged with vim and pizazz and you've got a winner of a show to embrace and enjoy.

Acting pin-spots : With 20 cats involved in all the Webber/Eliot antics, hardly fair to not acknowledge the entire bunch en masse. But of course that's never 100% fair either. 

Sunniest cat across the night is Sarah Seekamp as Jellylorum. Her intro of Asparagus was utterly rich and charming stuff. Remarkable too her excitement and merriment throughout the entire show.

As Rumpelteazer, Amanda Lau delivered dandy dance chops and in-character engagement without let-up.

Kyrst Hogan (Demeter) and Shayna Holmes (Bombalurina) are slick in their duet about Macavity (Kenneth Cheung) who not only "cheats at cards" but is at core crafty and malicious, a kind of mafia cat. He is ultimately subdued by tougher felines from the T S & E Scrap Salvage gang.

The entire troupe when doing back-up to the "Magical Mr. Mistoffelees" number was absolutely choice and precise and charming in both their singing and their choreography.

Grizabella (Lisa Ricketts) and Jemima (Lauren Trotzek) do a bang-up job on the crescendoing / decrescendoing full-verse version of "Memory" that brings on the show's denouement. 

The actual finale is "The Ad-dressing of Cats" that features the remarkable baritone tremolo of Doug Thoms as Old Deuteronomy leading everyone in a teach-in about cats "who resent familiarity and will condescend to have you as a friend" only if you bribe them with cream or caviar or pie.

Meanwhile Lyndsey Britten, dance captain, earlier pulls a nice doeppelganger turn at the end of Act I as the imagined / reincarnated Grizabella. That there was no reprise at the end of Act II was surprising and a bit confusing both -- another spin by Britten was necessary to tie off that bit of reincarnation detail.

Production values : FCP artistic director Ryan Mooney directs this show that brings a big-stage production down to living room size and warms viewers' hearts in so doing. His casting selections reveal insight and discernment and inclusiveness. Mooney's take of the Webber music atop the Eliot poetry is, to this eye anyway, about 90% flawless.

Between Music Director Adam Da Ros and Choreographer Rachael Carlson the energy & synergy of Webber/Eliot jumped off the stage lit.& fig. every second of the performance. Special kudos to Ms. Carlson who early in her professional career already reveals a deft touch for nuance and completion that are noteworthy. 

As might be obvious from above, I have been "staff" : to Zigi, Maynard, Sam, Sledge and Max over the course of many years. Carlson's incessant stage business for her catty characters was utterly engaging with all the cooing & paw swipes & nosey-huggles & fussiness & hissy fits that cats are all about. 

Fairlith Harvey, who also played cat Jennyanydots, did a simply stupendous job with the costumes. This was wonderful cloth indeed that she stitched together for FCP's production.

Rich make-up (Sharon Grogan) coupled with terrific music underscore (Adam Da Ros) and sound design (Peter Young) complete this compleat and welcoming production of what is now a classic of contemporary stage whose remount by FCP is champion stuff.

Who gonna like : Do you like song-&-dance theatre? Andrew Lloyd Webber's tunes? T.S. Eliot poetry that is both lyrical and lightweight? Cats, the animal? Small-stage venues?

If you answer "No!" to more than one of the above, maybe this isn't your go. But if like me you answer a resounding "Yes!" to all of the above, then this is a show you need to take in. Probably like us, it's been some 25 years since you've seen a version of Cats. No question FCP's production at Jericho will prove this is poetry that is just-plain-fun. The jaunty music arrangements that linger are pulled off by a crew of performers and production people who put on a show that is altogether enfolding in its charm and cuddle.

Particulars :  Presented by Fighting Chance Productions. At the Jericho Arts Centre. To March 12th. Show and season info @ Fighting Chance Productions

Production team : Director Ryan Mooney.  Music Director Adam Da Ros.  Choreographer Raehael Carlson.  Stage Manager Courtney Bettanin.  Assistant Stage Managers Lyndsey Baillie, Jillian Reynolds.  Costume Designer Fairlith Harvey.  Lighting Designer Nicole Weismiller.  Set Designer Tim Driscoll.  Make-up Designer Sharon Grogan.  Sound Designer Peter Young. Set Construction Crew Kevin Wilmott. Dave Carroll. Richard Smith.

Orchestra : Keyboard / Conductor Adam Da Ros.  Keyboard Patrick Courtin.  Guitar Peter Serravalle.  Bass Jazz Palley.  Drums NoeLani Jung. 

Performers :  Ian Backstrom (Mankustrap).  Daniel Bergeron (Trumblebrutus).  Lyndsey Britten (Cassandra).  Kenneth Chung (Macavity).  JD Dueckman (Alonzo).  Cody Fonda (Rum Tum Tugger).  Lucia Forward (Mungojerrie).  Hannah Gauthier (Victoria).  Fairlith Harvey (Jennyanydots).  Kyrst Hogan (Demeter).  Shayna Holmes (Bombalurina).  Damon Bradley Jang (Skimbleshanks).  Amanda Lau (Rumpleteazer).  Randy McCormick (Asparagus).  Lisa Ricketts (Grizabella).  Levi Schneider (Mr. Mistoffelees).  Sarah Seekamp (Jellylorum).   Nazanin Shoja (Exotica).  Doug Thoms (Bustopher Jones / Old Deuteronomy).  Lauren Trotzek (Jemima).

Addendum #1 :  From the web-page of Peninsula Youth Theater in Silicon Valley, California, USA -- no byline -- comes this interesting squib from and about ALW's efforts to secure funding for Cats in 1980, when the world was poised on the edge of a major recession :

"The business of financing loomed as the last hurdle and it looked insurmountable : Nobody wanted to invest in the show that had once been called Practical Cats. As the composer described it to an interviewer several years later : 'I can give you the objections, and they sound a convincing lot. Andrew Lloyd Webber without Robert Stigwood [the influential producer of his previous hits]; without Tim Rice [the lyricist with whom he'd written those hits Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita]; working with a dead poet; with a whole load of songs about cats; asking us to believe that people dressed up as cats are going to work; working with Trevor Nunn from the Royal Shakespeare Company, who's never done a musical in his life; working in the New London, the theatre with the worst track record in London; asking us to believe that 20 English people can do a dance show when England had never been able to put together any kind of fashionable dance entertainment before. It was just a recipe for disaster. But we knew in the rehearsal room that even if we lost everything, we'd attempted something that hadn't been done before.'

  In the darkest days of 1980, the 32-year-old Lloyd Webber mortgaged Sydmonton [family country estate near Hampshire] for a second time, and the tenacious [director Cameron] Mackintosh, then 34, placed an ad in the financial newspapers, inviting the general public to risk a stake. Nearly 250 did, one man gambling his life savings on the improbable success of the impractical project. The morning after the historic May 11, 1981 London premiere, the legendary producer David Merrick offered Mackintosh the British rights to his own current hit 42nd Street in exchange for the American rights to Cats; Mackintosh declined. By 1991, 42nd Street had earned $10 million; Cats had passed the $100 million mark to become the most profitable show in history [at the time], and there was no end in sight."

Addendum #2 : From a June 28, 1996 no byline interview by the Academy of Achievement []. In the interview the question was put to director Sir Trevor Nunn :

"Do you have any thoughts on the future of theater?"

TN :  I'm scared by this question. Live experiences are becoming increasingly a special occasion, or a treat, or a rarity. With the massive revolution in communication and entertainment that's taking place right now, it's time for everybody to emphasize that live things are vital.

     That sense of being at a living event is so exciting in itself. "This is happening now!" It can be recorded, but by the time it's recorded, it's become something different. Our sense of smell, our sense of fear, of atmosphere, of tension, our sense of scale, and most important of all, our sense of danger, all of those things come into play in a living event. It's like going to a live sporting event and experiencing it.

     It's a completely different experience when you are watching on television. The sense of danger is missing. That extraordinary visceral connection that happens with the live event itself.

   A huge potential audience is saying, "The number of times I go to a really bad movie is far less than the number of times that I wind up at some live event that's terrible and I'm very bored with it and I have to leave." There's a large element of chance in theatrical entertainment. "It only costs this to take me to the movie house. It costs me only this to watch cable. It costs me very much more to watch live actors."

     ...When [theatre] works, when it really works, then it can change your life for good, and all. There are things that can happen to you in a theater, things which can be to do with performance, to do with understanding elements of the human condition, which can be to do with ideas, can be to do with uncomfortable ideas, abrasive ideas, revolutionary ideas. But, there are things that can change you more extremely and stay with you longer because of that live visceral contact...

     The basic condition of the theater actually requires no technology. All it requires is that fire last night and those costumes and the human voice and people gathered together. That's all that's required for something to happen that is life changing. Of course, there are countless sophistications of it. Keeping [those] things is what's going to make entertainment, and expression, and communication so much more rich in the next century, in the next millennium.


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