CATSBy Andrew Lloyd Webber
Based on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by TS Elliot
Artisan Center Theater
Directed by Reid Horton
Musical Director - H. Richard Gwozdz
Choreographer - Brittany Jenkins
Set Design – Tobin Griffin
Illumination Design – Doug Vandergrift
Lighting Design – Natalie Burkhart
Sound Design – Natalie Burkhart
Costume Design – Michelle Cawood, Henry Cawood
Stage Manager – Meghan Webb
CAST (as seen on this performance)
Bombalurina – Danielle Eslami
Bustopher Jones – Luis Quezada
Cassandra – Emily Phyathep
Demeter – Valerie Walker
Electra – Lizzy Davis
Etcetera – Jacqueline Gimmler
Gus/Growltiger – Reid Horton
Grizabella – Mary Ridenour
Jellylorum/Griddlebone – ChristaCarol Jones
Jemima – Hannah Baker
Jennyanydots – Devon Harper
Kitten – Jake Jones
Mister Mistoffelees – Maclain Rhine
Mungojerrie/Macavity – Ian Nance
Munkustrap – Elias Roman
Old Deuteronomy – Michael Hasty
Rum Tum Tugger – Jared Kyle
Rumpleteazer – Mikayla Medford
Skimbleshanks – Mason Vales
Tantomile – Michelle Roberts
Victoria – Brittany Jenkins
Reviewed Performance: 10/13/2018
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Before being a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats was a collection of poems by T.S. Eliot. He wrote Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats in the 1930's for his godchildren. Webber orchestrated those poems into songs and enhanced them with the eye of a storyteller and put it in an innovative production design, led by Trevor Nunn.
The story is simple. It's the Jellicle Ball when the Jellicle cats come out to play. The tribe gathers to celebrate life and entertain Old Deuteronomy, like tribal dances around a campfire. There are young cats and old cats and many in-between and many have stories told through Eliot's poems. It's an iconic good versus evil story. The good and evil mystery ends with the choice of the cat who ascends to Heaviside Layer to be reborn. You might even say it's the story of humanity.
Artisan Center Theater began this journey by casting Director Reid Horton and supported that with their long-time musical director, H. Richard Gwozdz, and Brittany Jenkins as choreographer. Since the story is told in song backed by innovative dance, these were inspired choices to build a unique version of Cats for Artisan. The design team turned their unique 4-corner stage into an junky urban street where the Jellicle tribe plays. It was bright, colorful and eye-catching throughout.
Artisan's stage is an open square floor cornered by four playing areas, one of which is movable. The corners had all the right props and set pieces to give it the urban feel. This set, designed by Tobin Griffin, provided high places for height-loving kitties to weave their stories, with numerous entryways and hidden compartments filled with surprises, and even allowed for some real magic. On the four walls behind the seating were large projection screens where Illuminist, Doug Vandergrift, provided background skylines and moving images to support the songs. All this was paired with Natalie Burkhart's lighting that filled the stage with many moods to match the songs. There were flashes and spots highlighting set areas or a single character. This also included lighting effects that rivaled what you'd see on a large production. I was impressed with how Burkhart helped the magic during Mr. Mistoffelees, a heightened number that returns a missing character to the tribe. It wasn't quite the sophistication of the camera magic in the movie, but it wasn't far off and it was live in a small theater! Burkhart also added sound effects to the lighting effects. Pair these with the projection images and you have an exciting space for storytelling and late night imagination.
The big deal for Cats is the costumes. You can't do this show effectively with skimpy costumes and Artisan did not cut corners. Despite limited budget, Michelle and Henry Cawood, mother and son, created some of the best cat looks ever. Each costume was unique to fit vastly different color patterns, different hair pieces, face makeup styles and even tails. Each was meticulously designed and sewn using tights and other base pieces, leggings, dance shoes, socks, and all were color-coordinated in wild patterns that gave each cat a different look species look. You could buy the whole costume plot from a theater supply, but you would not get any better than these. The Cawoods get a big star for their designs and this goes on my list as a top costume show for the year.
Reid Horton directed Cats, but it was obviously a team effort. There's a huge amount of dance and movement around this small stage area, for a cast of twenty-one actors, often filling that small floor and bleeding into the audience. The music is energetic and covers the gamut from ballads to jazz to rock to ballet. Jenkins created movements that got all dancers moving together, but accounted for individual personalities of the cat characters, allowing them to move a bit differently from the others while meeting the overall vision. Richard Gwozdz took Andrew Lloyd Webber's amazing score, which is vastly underappreciated in its complexity and orchestration, and empowered the large cast of solo voices and harmonies that filled the backing musical tracks. I love the music in this show and Gwozdz was able to get the most out of each actor's voice while creating an ensemble sound second to none.
But Cats has a story to tell and Reid Horton had a vision that seemed to be embraced by the cast. There's heartfelt pathos, angst and mystery, fear and loathing, and sadness and joy throughout this story. Each actor must be committed to the story to pull this off and nail those songs in the midst of energetic dances. Each actor demonstrated a singular focus to every story element. Horton used his stage and sets with amazing creativity, moving actors in and out, up and down the sets, making them disappear and reappear, in a seamless way that allowed the show its characteristic fast pace. And, in addition to directing, Horton played several important parts, including Gus, the Theater Cat, one of my favorite moments.
Cats, despite some solos, is an ensemble show. It opens with the ensemble, and most actors fill-in and play side parts in every song. At times one or two may step out and become a featured soloist or dancer, but they then added ensemble weight during another cat's story. I was impressed with how each actor possessed their specific personality to go with their costume, hair style and tail. Their dances were energetic and harmonies were blended and beautiful. Together they elevated the power and emotion in each song.
There's about 20 songs in this show, a couple of which are familiar in popular music, but most are unknown. Yet they're really evocative in bringing each Eliot poem to life. Each song consists of a solo or duet that highlights one of cats. Together they paint a picture of life in the tribe. Add dance and harmonies and you get toe-tapping, sing-a-longs, and racing hearts.
The song everyone knows is Memory. Sung by Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, this is the iconic tale of heartache as age removes the vigor a cat, or person, once had. Grizabella is the main character in this story. It's her life, as a failed and shunned, forgotten star. And, of course, that song, Memory, is the ultimate climax overture to express how it feels to lose the adoration and respect from a once-adoring public. This role was made famous by the likes of Elaine Paige and Betty Buckley. On this night, Grizabella was played and sung by Mary Ridenour and it was thrilling! She matched those other stars in energy and empathy, showing all the pain and suffering built into that heartbreak. And her voice was just as strong and heartfelt, so pure and clean with all the emotion coming through. It ties directly to human suffering. I don't think one can get through it without a little tear, even if they don't like Cats.
There's many other songs with equal energetic response. Rum Tum Tugger, played by Jared Kyle, describes himself in his own song, The Rum Tum Tugger. His Elivis-like personality was rock & roll at the core and Kyle wore it like a glove. And singing his own song fit his style. Why let someone else tell his story? In his black, skintight coat, grey hair, and fur mane, he strutted around making all the girls scream. It was a high-energy song that requires charisma and vocal power and Kyle oozed both. Tugger is also involved in many other songs, sometimes just as a rock-star watching the events unfold with an all-knowing eye. Kyle later sang the tale of Mr. Mistoffeles, the Magical Cat. This was more ballad with a tinge of rock and, while he used that strong voice as before, for this he focused attention totally towards Mr. Mistoffeles in awe of his special talents, even as magic is being performed all over the floor.
Mr. Mistoffeles doesn't sing much, mostly as an ensemble singer, but his dance is spectacular. Maclain Rhine was the featured male dancer with very strong ballet and modern skills and he bounded and tip-toed all over the floor and up and down corner sets, sometimes performing magic at the same time. His ballet moves set the mood of a story. In his stark black and white suit, sometimes covered in sequins, Rhine was elegant and perfectly thrilling to the audience. He worked into most every dance and scene, like the battle of the pekes and pollicles.
His partner in many dances was the equally elegant, all-white Victoria. She was the featured female dancer and was often in duet with Mr. Mistoffeles, especially in the ballet moments. She also interpreted moments in other songs, showing the gamut of dance styles in grace and beauty. Victoria was played by Brittany Jenkins, the choreographer of the show. And it showed. Her precise movements were mesmerizing to watch and instructive for younger dancers. When she entered the stage, all eyes focused to her. She showed an elusive talent in dancers to embody the meaning of a song into physical movement, and so added an emotional element that couldn't be done any other way.
There are so many great performances here that you'll find something you like.
Memories, happiness, reminiscing, those moments we pass off as mundane are what makes this show so special. I loved the small touches of little kindnesses you might miss if you didn't pay attention. Jemima (Hannah Baker) picked up Grizabella's feelings by parroting the grand dame's songs, showing that someone honored her. Jellylorum (ChristaCarol Jones) opened the tale of Gus as if he was her beloved granddad. One of my favorite songs is Macavity: The Mystery Cat. Sung by Demeter (Valerie Walker) and Bombalurina (Danielle Eslami), this ballsy, jazzy song is a mixture of curiosity, fear and admiration for Macavity's mysterious exploits. Macavity (Ian Nance) doesn't sing much in this role, but he slinks and struts and menaces everyone silently. This is another form of respect. Finally, all the cats showed their deep respect and admiration for Grizabella with their cat-like head rubs and paw touches. You may have to be a real cat lover to notice those. But those are the little moments that make Cats a memorable performance.
Old Deuteronomy, the aged leader adored and worshipped by the Jellicle tribe, sums up the evening with his final declaration on the story in The Ad-Dressing Of Cats. Michael Hasty helped us understand the ways of the cat species. He spoke for all catdom that they need and deserve our respect. There are many types of cats and it takes all kinds to make up a tribe and knowing how to address them respectfully is the key to happiness. You could say that about people too. Society depends on respect, regardless of differences. And it begins with the importance of names. "So this is this, and that is that. And there's how you AD-DRESS A CAT."
It's hard to make an iconic staple fresh and interesting. Artisan has a talent for doing that. This is a superb production you can take your kids and grandparents to see and launch a new and old generation to fall in love. And you may discover for yourself a new-found respect for Cats.
Artisan Center Theater
444 E Pipeline Rd
Hurst, TX 76053
Plays through November 3rd
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30pm
Saturday Matinee October 20, 27, and November 3 at 3:00pm
Tickets are $12/22/24 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Tickets are $10/22 on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.
For information, visit www.artisanct.com or call 817-284-1200