Life in the back alleys and junkyards of London will spring to slinking, leaping, cavorting life as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ground-breaking and legendary musical “Cats” – 18 years on Broadway, 21 years in London – sprawls across the Crown Uptown stage beginning Friday.
“It’s been more of a challenge than I had originally planned on, but it’s paying off,” said Gigi Gans, normally known as Crown’s choreographer but who will be both director and choreographer for “Cats,” because dancing is the key to the show.
“There are so many iconic moments. If we don’t do them, the audience would be disappointed. But I’m putting my take on them because the original was done in the 1980s. I’m using more modern movements but keeping the overall feel,” Gans said.
Gans also is adding 10 “kittens” – kids ages 8 to 12 – as part of the chorus, a move she said will give the show a subtle, fresh look.
“Our stage is smaller than Broadway, so we’ve had to make some adjustments. We couldn’t have as many adult cats, but we could add kittens,” she said. “We’re also using the set a bit more to play off so the cats can be cats, more crawling than walking. And we’re taking some characters through the audience to draw people into the cats’ junkyard home.”
Webber’s 1981 musical is based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” Webber set Eliot’s verse to music with almost no spoken dialogue. The only song not adapted directly from the book is “Memory,” the haunting show-stopper (lyrics by Trevor Nunn) sung by the aging, faded glamour cat Grizabella, reminiscing about her long-lost “days in the sun.”
Acting as audience go-between is Patrick Ball as Munkustrap, a tabby tomcat who narrates the tale of a tribe of special Jellicle Cats and their gathering to choose one cat to ascend to the Heavyside Layer and come back in a new life.
“Munkustrap is the storyteller, the leader and protector of the tribe. He introduces the cats to the audience and explains their traditions. He is a noble, regal cat who takes pride in being the father figure,” said Ball, a native of San Jose, Calif., who is now based professionally in New York.
“I identify with him because he carries a lot of the singing, and I’ve been singing since I was a kid,” said Ball, who has appeared in the San Francisco Bay area in “A Chorus Line” and “Gypsy.” “I’ve also been a dancer since I was a kid. I’m finding my ‘inner cat’ in these jazz and ballet movements.”
In the Jellicle tribe is the mischievous pair Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, a pair of playful cat burglars played by Austin Stang and Janet Wiggins. These cats are known for a featured dance that winds up with them cartwheeling together across the stage.
“They’re always causing trouble and having a lot of fun doing it,” said Stang, a Kansas City native and former Wichita State University student who has been a regular at Crown Uptown for two seasons in shows such as “White Christmas,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Hairspray.” “He has some of the happy-go-lucky personality that I like to think I have, but I can really identify with all of his energy.”
Added Wiggins, a Wichita native and recent theater graduate from WSU: “Rumpleteazer is fun, young and giggly. I like to think that I’m adventurous like she is, but I’m not quite as rambunctious. I’m a little ornery, but I’m not as bad as she is, probably because I’m not a cat.”
Wiggins likes that she is paired with Stang throughout the show because it gives her somebody to play off constantly for support – particularly for the rigorous dance movements.
“I had no idea how much dancing was involved. Even when we aren’t in the spotlight, the reality is that you are on stage almost continuously,” said Wiggins, recently seen in Crown’s “Hairspray” and WSU’s “Crazy for You.” “By the end of this show, I’m going to be in the best shape of my life.”
Anthony Gasbarre plays the Rum Tum Tugger, a flashy, show-offish tomcat who is never satisfied and is Munkustrap’s incorrigible brother.
“He’s definitely the bad boy of the tribe,” said Gasbarre, a Leavenworth native and WSU junior who has appeared at Starlight Theatre and Music Theatre Heritage in Kansas City. “When Andrew Lloyd Webber was creating the character, he had Mick Jagger in mind. He’s sexy and exciting. That’s something way out of my element. He’s a lot cooler than I am. But it gives me a chance to break out. And I’m happy to do it.”
The soul of the show is embodied in the tattered and pathetic Grizabella, the once glamorous, now faded beauty played by Karen Robu, a veteran of Music Theatre of Wichita best known for Mama Rose in “Gypsy” and the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“I think of her like the faded movie star in ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ The young cats shun her, not because she has done anything to them but because she is not one of them,” said Robu, whose solo, “Memory,” is the unquestioned showstopper and the only song that found a life outside the show.
“Society has a way of making people disposable when they are no longer young. I don’t consider myself old enough to be past my prime, but I am old enough to realize there are roles I’m now too old to do,” Robu said. “This show points out how youth often doesn’t recognize what their elders have accomplished.”
Other cats in the tribe are played by Anna Cooper, Ben Cramer, Kyle Gallegos, Stephanie Gilmore, Molly McCloskey, Mario Castro, Patti Cooper, Bonnie French, Billy Lowrimore and Luke Walker. The “kitten” ensemble includes Timothy T.V. Cao, Hannah Griffin, Thomas Higgins, Lily Kovar, Lily Willis, Zoe Corrigan, Eden Hadley, Abby Jolicoeur, Londen Peebler and Kyle Wimberly.
Music director Jesse Warkentin will lead the orchestra. Costumes are by Dora Arbuckle, with wigs and makeup by Darian Leatherman. The junkyard set is by Greg Crane, with lighting by Dan Harmon and props by Stephanie Dennis.