Last Thursday I met actor/singer/comedian/dancer/writer Claire Wilcher on the northwest side of town at Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre for the opening night of “Cats.” The show is based on the poems in “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot. Its music is by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Buddy Reeder is the director and choreographer for the B&B production. He restaged the show based on Marc Robins’ 2004 B&B choreography. Kristy Templet is the musical director. Dawn Rivard is the wig and makeup artist. Brian Horton is the costumer.
I had never seen “Cats” before, but Claire told me she has seen several productions of it, beginning with a big, Broadway touring production of it when she was a child. She loved the songs so much that she memorized them, listening to a recording of them over and over.
I had asked her to be my guest just because I knew I would enjoy her company. It was an unexpected treat to find myself with a “Cats” aficionado!
The show itself was a lot of fun, too. It was the largest cast that I had ever seen in a show at the intimate Beef and Boards theatre. Twenty-six cats prowled around not only on the stage but everywhere in the house. They hung down from the (pardon the expression) cat walk. They draped themselves over the tier dividers in the audience. They sharpened their claws on the speaker boxes. They perched on a little landing opposite the band. They even crawled around under foot and rubbed against people’s legs. If you had to get up and use the restroom before intermission, you had to be careful you didn’t step on anyone’s tail. I don’t have a cat at home now, but I am a cat person from way back, so I laughed in delight at the feeling that I was in a (odorless) cat shelter.
I imagine that what the B&B production lacks in Broadway-esque grandeur it makes up for with its creative use of the whole house as the “set.” You also get to see the elaborate cat headdresses and makeup up close.
The first time the cats spread out into the audience on Thursday night, one stopped right by our table. It must be an odd experience for the performer, to be singing and dancing as part of a chorus but with people watching and listening to you as if you were soloing almost in their laps.
Anyway, “our” cat was very tall and his coat was mostly brown. After he had danced and sung near our table, I felt he was “my” cat, and so I looked for the tall, brown cat during all of the group numbers. He never sang a solo, but at one point he did a great job shouting “Places, please!” in a funny way, and he was a joyful dancer throughout the show.
(Because of the cat makeup, I couldn’t tell which of the real-life photos in the program belonged to “my” cat. However, the next day, B&B’s PR/Media Relations Coordinator, Patricia Rettig, knew exactly who I was talking about. “My” cat’s name is Plato. The dancer/singer/actor who plays him is Jami Keck.)
Claire had warned me over dinner (which included my favorite vegetable of all time: Brussels sprouts!) that there wasn’t a strong story arc to the show, that mostly the show is a series of vignettes about various individual cats who are all gathered at a special cat party, the annual Jellicle Ball. The head cat is judging them to decide which one will get to leave the party and go to kitty heaven, also known as The Heavyside.
I was glad to know this ahead of time. It allowed me to just let the songs and dances and stories flow over me without worrying too much about how they all fit together.
The head cat is called Old Deuteronomy. Local actor/director/producer Ty Stover plays him. I almost fell out of my chair when he began to sing. Oh, my goodness, his deep, rich voice is outstanding! Who knew Santa could sing like that?!
“Yeah,” agreed Claire at intermission. “I love me a good man’s voice.”
I asked Claire if this production was similar to the others she had seen. I was especially curious about whether the costumes and dancing were similar.
“Pretty much,” she said. “The choreography in this production has been updated from the 1980s. There’s more hip-hop in it. But the cats look pretty much like they always look. I mean, you do ‘Cats’ because you want to do ‘Cats,’ not some other show.”
I took her to mean that for a theatre, producing “Cats” is not like doing Shakespeare or something where the designers, directors, and performers might want to interpret it in a completely new way. I also imagine that the audience members who already love this multiple Tony award-winning show want to be able to recognize their favorite cats every time they go.
“Rum Tum Tugger always looks like that (wearing a big, furry chestpiece) and he is always sexy, for example,” Claire continued…
(I thought, “Check! Andy Frye’s portrayal of him is definitely sexy. MRroww!”)
“…and my eye is always drawn to the little cat all in black. He is magical Mister Mistoffelees.”
Claire’s eyes lit up when she spoke of him, so after intermission, I watched for him, too. I enjoyed Philip Groft’s lithe portrayal of the sparkly magician cat, especially in his leaps-and-turns-filled dance solo. I cheered with the other cats when he rescued Old Deuteronomy from wherever the slippery criminal cat, Macavity (Anthony Majewski), had banished him.
For the most part, I enjoyed all of the songs and dances, but I especially enjoyed Munkustrap’s (Kenny Shepard’s) storytelling in the hilarious battle of the “Pekes & Pollicles.” A woman sitting near us went into hysterics, she was laughing so hard during this number in which the cats pretend to be dogs.
I also especially admired the “Jellicle Ball” dance break just before intermission. It was energetic, creative, and beautiful…AND it lasted a satisfyingly long time. Claire said the dancers were probably glad to lie flat on the floor for a bit after that while Grizabella sang a little preview of her song.
I didn’t quite understand Grizabella’s story, although I recognized the heartbreaking song, “Memory,” when Sandra Simpson sang it. Grizabella was gorgeous when she was young but now that she is old and no longer beautiful she is unhappy and therefore everyone picks on her? How come they don’t pick on Asparagus (Andrew Lebon)? He is old, too, and also living in the past. Does everyone just like his funny songs better? Jellylorum (Kate Goetzinger) sings about “Gus the Theatre Cat” with affection, and I have to admit that I laughed, too, as Asparagus as Growltiger and Jellylorum as Griddlebone reenacted the starring roles in which they had “made history” on the stage.
But I felt sorry for poor, unloved Grizabella. I meant to ask Claire about the mystifying unfairness of it all after the show but I forgot.
In addition to the cats I have already mentioned, the nimble cast of characters includes Deb Wims as Demeter; Ryan Richardson as Tumblebrutus; Peter Scharbrough as Quaxo; Teresa Diehl as Bombalurina; Callie L.N. Johnson as Rumpleteazer; Chelsea McLean as Sillabub; Samantha Hewes as Jennyanydots; Mathew deGuzman as Coricopat; Karen Webb as Tantamile; Michael Dauer as Skimbleshanks; Eric Allen Smith as Mungojerrie; Sally Mitchell as Etcetera; Adrienne Atkins as Victoria. Anthony Majewski plays Alonzo as well as Macavity. Andrew Lebon plays Bustopher Jones as well as Asparagus and Growltiger.
I admired the impeccable sound design by Daniel Hesselbrock as I always do. And the orchestra, which sounded good throughout the show, made me want to get up and dance myself during the jazzy “Macavity” song. Kristy Templet is the conductor and plays keyboard. Ernie Coleson is on woodwinds. David Coleson is on trumpet. Tim Kelly plays percussion. Terry Woods is also on keyboard.
I loved Michael Layton’s scenic and lighting design: the set was a huge, empty picture frame propped up at an angle in the place where the cats had gathered. I assumed it was an alley, but my press kit says it was an abandoned theatre, which makes more sense. In any case, the cats could peek out over the top edge of the frame. Sometimes marquee lights raced around it. Someone had tied a swath of rich tapestry to one side of it. It was very cool.
Ed Stockman is the stage manager, which maybe means he is the one pulling the chosen cat up to heaven on a little swing at the end – a disconcerting but nonetheless engaging special effect. Or maybe applause for that piece of theatrical razzle-dazle goes to technical director Bill Mollencupp.
My press kit includes an article about Dawn Rivard, the artist who designed the hair and makeup for both the 2004 and 2009 productions of “Cats” at B&B. She has worked on several productions of “Cats,” in fact, plus several films, television series, and other live theatre pieces.
I was interested to read that “the makeup (for “Cats”) is specific – and not many productions demand it, so it has to be specially ordered.” Rivard says, “There is a long list of items that make a highly animated and active show a success.”
She also says that transforming an actor into a cat takes about 10 minutes for wig prep and placement, plus another 15 to 30 minutes of makeup application, depending on the character. She generally advises the actors to “give themselves at least an hour until they get the hang of it.”
I had never thought about the fact that an actor has to memorize his or her makeup design as well as his or her lines!
I also loved reading about why and how Rivard keeps her “hand in different industries so it keeps all the skills up. Theatre keeps you thinking fast because you have a live audience. Film keeps your standards high – especially from working in High Definition with big budgets. Private clients keep your people skills intact.”
Thank you, Patricia Rettig, for including this fascinating article in my press kit!
Liz, the house manager, welcomed us warmly on Thursday night. Giselle served us cheerfully. And Claire paid for our desserts. Thanks, everybody!
“Cats” continues at Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre through April 5, 2009. To make a reservation, please call the box office at 317-872-9664 any day between 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. There are lots of choices for when to see this. For a complete show schedule, please visit the B&B website. This show is sponsored in part by National Bank of Indianapolis.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com