Cats (Columbus Children’s Theatre & Columbus Moving Company – Columbus, OH)

 


Cats, one of the longest-running and most popular stage musicals worldwide, has always been a bit of a puzzlement to many a theatre fan, myself included. The show doesn’t follow the usual structure of a musical or stick to any of its conventions, yet it has proven to be incredibly popular and successful. Adapted from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats with music supplied by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats was one of the British mega musicals that took over Broadway during the 1980s. In all the show ran for eighteen years on Broadway and has toured the country since the mid ’80s, a favorite for families long before Disney’s The Lion King appeared on the horizon in 1997.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Grace Johnson (Jemima) and Devin Judge (Munkustrap)
 

Cats is an assemblage of various character numbers with only the barest semblance of a plot; its main assets are a catchy score, character design, and dancing. It isn’t a real musical in the traditional sense, but it has surely drawn many people to the theatre over the last thirty-five years who may now owe their initial curiosity about live theatre to this show; in that way, Cats is a force musical theatre scholars can’t deny, one that has helped to foster generations of theatregoers who perhaps moved on to more serious and deeper pastures musically. The show’s flagship song “Memory” is now a standard, one that even the staunch theatre cognoscenti (those that count Cats along with other British juggernauts like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon as somehow inferior works) can’t discount entirely. 

  

Photo: David Heasley – William Macke (Skimbleshanks)
 


Cats has now arrived via Columbus Children’s Theatre and Columbus Moving Company at the historic Lincoln Theatre in a production that is elaborate with energy to spare. Here the cats frolic and scamp about, sometimes even through the aisles around the audience. This production replicates so many of the costumes and bits of stage business quite familiar to fans of the show while making some notable and welcome changes that aid in making it the kind of local event that commands attention. Even if you’ve seen Cats many times before, this production is still very much worth your time and attention.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Rumpleteazer (Sara Tuohy) and Mungojerrie (Kyle Swearingen)
 
Highlights of this production include seeing Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Kyle Swearingen and Sara Tuohy respectively) perform their number with added acrobatic feats; William Macke shimmy his way around the stage as Skimbleshanks, The Railway Cat; Ryan Stem’s solemn and solid portrayal of Old Deuteronomy; Stewart R. Bender performing double duty as jolly Bustopher Jones and the heartbreakingly infirm Gus, The Theatre Cat; and last but far from least, Kendra Lucas as Grizabella, The Glamour Cat, eloquently delivering “Memory” as if the words are occurring to her for the first time, more than matching the best interpretations of that famous song.

 

Photo: David Heasley – Kendra Lucas (Grizabella)
 
Director Ryan Scarlata sticks close to the feel and staging of the 1998 film version produced for television and video release, which appears to have been a valuable reference. Still, some of the best moments are when Mr. Scarlata and choreographer Jeffrey Fouch (who also adeptly performs as Quaxo and Mr. Mistoffelees) veer away from what we expect from Cats, incorporating more gymnastics and acrobatics into the presentation. Michael Brewer’s decrepit circus set fits the material far better in my mind than the traditional junkyard, as the various musical sequences feel more like circus or vaudeville acts than alley performances. Brendan Michna’s layered lighting serves to enhance each scene and support the excellent craftsmanship of the many talented people working behind the scenes to make sure the makeup, costumes, and wigs are just right.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Krista Lively Stauffer (Jellylorum) and Stewart R. Bender (Gus)
 
The only aspect of this production that is sometimes disappointing is that of the music, which is a pretty big deal for a musical. I’m sure it’s no fault of musical director Jonathan Collura as he never missteps in his accompaniment, but only so much can come across without the proper instrumentation. Many numbers sound more like elevator Muzak than what should be playing alongside the action on stage.

 

Photo: David Heasley
 
Columbus Children’s Theatre and Columbus Moving Company have done a remarkable job mounting Cats with production values that meet or exceed what we usually see from national tours when they pass through Columbus. It really says something when I find myself enjoying a production of a show of which I’m not particularly fond, but that is exactly what happened in this case. Don’t let the 150-minute running time listed on CCT’s website scare you off; it actually runs two hours including the intermission though no songs are missing or are abridged (aside from “Growltiger’s Last Stand” and perhaps longer dance sequences that pass without notice). Cats is still a show that makes many a theatre fan roll their eyes, but I found myself humming the tunes to “The Rum Tum Tugger” and “Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat” as well as the ubiquitous “Memory” for days afterwards.

***/ out of ****

Cats continues through to May 15th in the Lincoln Theatre located at 769 East Long Street, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/cats.html

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Peter and the Starcatcher (CATCO/CATCO is Kids! – Columbus, OH)

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Remakes, sequels, and adaptations of James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan have steadily grown in popularity since the original play premiered in 1904. There have been animated films, Broadway musicals, and many feature films about the “boy who wouldn’t grow up,” with a live television broadcast of the 1954 musical, a new Broadway musical (Finding Neverland), and a sci-fi film (Pan) all arriving on the scene within the past year alone! CATCO and CATCO is Kids! now present Peter and the Starcatcher, a prequel that relays just where Peter Pan came from and how he first encountered his nemesis, the future Captain Hook.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 

Peter and the Starcatcher ran for nearly a full season on Broadway from 2012 to 2013; written by Rick Elise with music by Wayne Baxter, it is based on a 2006 young adult novel written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the first in a series of prequel books about Peter Pan. The story concerns two ships, the Wasp and the Neverland, both bound for Rundoon; Lord Aster is on the Wasp with special cargo for the queen, and his daughter Molly and her nanny are on the Neverland, where three orphans (the future Peter Pan being one of them) have been hidden as stowaways to be sold. The cargo between the ships is swapped, and it isn’t long before the orphans emerge from hiding on the Neverland and befriend Molly, and a pirate named Black Stache hijacks the Wasp looking for the mystical treasure bound for the queen. What follows includes a shipwreck, mermaids, a hungry crocodile, a magic amulet, and “starstuff.” 

   

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
The cast is extremely likable, with the standouts being Emma Cordray as Molly, Colby Tarrh as Prentiss, Mark Mineart as Black Stache, and Andrew Protopapas as Alf. Ms. Cordray has a way of being a know-it-all as Molly while also being totally correct in her pitch, rising at the end of sentences in a sing-song kind of way that fit perfectly (it annoyed the friend I attended with, but I thought it was just right); Mr. Tarrh is adorably bossy as Prentiss with a lot to do in the first act as the leader of the boys; Mr. Mineart has a booming voice and intimidating look at Black Stache, but can just as quickly turn fey and flippant, a textbook example of how to play that part; and Mr. Protopapas leaves all worry of appearing foolish behind as Alf, performing with a signature walk and carriage that could summon laughter from the audience without even really doing much of anything. His mermaid drag in the second act is particularly cute, as is that of Mr. Mineart. These four performers understand the tone of the piece the most, and they help set it for the rest of the cast to follow.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Honorable mentions are due for Danny Turek as Peter, Andrew Levitt as Betty Bumbake, and Jonathan Collura as Bill Slank. Mr. Turek may have the title role of Peter, but his character has to grow quite a bit emotionally through the piece from the backward and shy youth simply called “boy” at the beginning of the story. Having seen Mr. Turek in other plays, I can now appreciate how he holds back his natural inclination to be quite animated for the first half of the story so that he can serve the path of the character. Even when he shows more strength and aggression in the second act, Mr. Turek nicely holds back a bit so he seems more a part of the ensemble. Mr. Levitt hams it up nicely as Betty Bumbake, his flirting scenes with Mr. Protopapas a particular comedic highlight, though I do think his character would be better represented with more of a wig and costume than the slight apron and lace headpiece provided. Mr. Collura looks like Jake from “Jake and the Never Land Pirates” with his red bandana, and it’s a most amusing moment when he gets right up into Mr. Levitt’s face in a brief scene they share. Mr. Collura’s part is small, but he is also the musical director of the show, seen off to the side playing the musical accompaniment before rushing back on stage; he wears many hats comfortably and with great skill.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
There is a lack of whimsy to this production that seems odd to me. There are plenty of funny moments (mostly in the second act), but the kind of wide-eyed wonder one would expect from a story about Peter Pan is absent; the sum is less than its individual parts. The show comes off as underproduced overall, lacking enough props and scenic elements to tell the story effectively, especially at the beginning and ending of the first act; the setup with the two ships and cargo, and when the two ships collide and passengers cross from one ship to another, is muddled and difficult to pinpoint exactly what is going on. I’ve seen the show before and know the story, and yet I found myself second guessing a few moments as they seemed to differ greatly from the production I saw in Dayton last June (that production had its own set of problems, but getting the story across was not one of them).

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Still, CATCO’s Peter and the Starcatcher is enjoyable and ultimately rewarding to a degree, though the first act is at times difficult to get through and there doesn’t appear to be enough to look at for the kids (or adults) in the audience. When the show works, it really works; when it doesn’t, there is a pall that falls over the proceedings from which it takes some time to recover. There are some very good performances on display from an amiable cast, and this production is far from being poor; it just feels like a bit of a missed opportunity considering the source material.

**/ out of ****

Peter and the Starcatcher continues through to December 20th in Studio One at the Riffe Center on 77 South High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2015-2016/peter-and-the-starcatcher

[title of show] (CATCO – Columbus, OH)

[title of show] chronicles the writing of an original musical – itself. Starting with an idea from book writer Hunter Bell and composer/lyricist Jeff Bowen to write a musical about creating the actual musical they are writing (it’s very meta) to submit for the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004, Hunter and Jeff bring in their friends Heidi and Susan to be a part of the creative process. The play covers their discussions about their everyday lives in, out, and around the New York theatre scene while also examining the creative process and the struggle of creating art. After playing the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival, [title of show] enjoyed two runs off Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in 2006 (where I saw Avenue Q begin its life in 2003) before jogging uptown to Broadway in the fall of 2008.

I knew of but completely missed out on seeing the play in New York, but perhaps that was for the best; I doubt it could’ve been as engagingly performed or staged as CATCO’s production. Though [title of show] seems designed for a small performance space, it can’t be easy to keep things moving and visually interesting in the cabaret-like Studio Three at the Riffe Center, but director Joe Bishara does just that. Choreographer Liz Wheeler finds inventive ways to use the small space to her advantage, making the dancing and movement seem to be a natural extension of the moment, and lighting designer Curtis “Nitz” Brown’s lighting cues are spot-on and brilliant at separating the stage to evoke different locations while also using many different colors to reflect the mood. I wasn’t expecting as much real production when I entered this space (it’s my first time being in it), and I am impressed. I sat to the right of the stage, and I often found myself looking to the mirror along the wall behind the audience to see a different vantage point of the performers directly in front of me; it was like having two points of view from one seat, both valid and thrilling.

What I like about [title of show] is what it has to say about the creative process. The show reminds me of Sondheim’s song “Putting It Together” from Sunday in the Park With George, examining the struggle to be true to oneself while also taking financial aspects into consideration while creating art. Songs like “Die, Vampire, Die!” and “Change It, Don’t Change It” can speak not only to people in the theatre but to anyone in any field be it architecture or the culinary arts; we all have self doubt to fight against and that nagging insecurity that can derail our mission if we let it. I also enjoyed the deep catalog references to flop musicals like Henry, Sweet Henry and Hot September, and I encourage anyone interested in musicals that have gone awry to pick up a copy of Ken Mandlebaum’s Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops, a book that I’m positive the writers of [title of show] have on their shelves.

Jonathan Collura, who plays composer and lyricist Jeff Bowen, makes his CATCO debut here, but I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform around Columbus previously in tick, tick…BOOM! (Evolution) and Young Frankenstein (Imagine), and we often seem to attend the same performances of other shows. It’s interesting that Jonathan was in tick, tick…BOOM! as that show and [title of show] are cousins in that they both deal with the art of creating music for the theatre (covering the territory in very different ways); he played a composer in both plays, so is Amadeus in Jonathan’s future? I’m convinced he can pretty much do anything given the opportunity and the right team of co-stars. Every time I’ve seen him perform he disappears into his part and is completely believable, be it as an anguished aspiring songwriter turning thirty or as a mad (but musical) scientist. He has a character actor’s recognizable face combined with the stage presence and command of a lead. Jonathan could play a table or a couch and elicit applause, and I look forward to seeing where he pops up next.

Bradley Johnson as book writer Hunter Bell is sweet without being cloying, and he is adept at gathering up many of the laughs from the audience. When he is called a “procrastibator” (a word that I hope works its way into popular usage), he makes this “What – me?” expression that spreads into a knowing smile. The moment could be sleazy or distasteful with the wrong timing and approach, but Bradley doesn’t let that happen.

Annie Huckaba as Susan balances her role’s brattiness with being likable, and she can always be depended on to find the right tone in a pointed line to get the audience to laugh. Her initial mistrust of Heidi is explored humorously and honestly in the duet “What Kind of Girl Is She?,” a song to which I’m sure many women in the audience could relate, and her commanding lead in what becomes the ensemble number “Die, Vampire, Die!” brings the right energy at exactly the right time.

Elisabeth Zimmerman as Heidi is pretty without being obnoxious, and humble about her Broadway work without being too self deprecating. Though underwritten, Elisabeth finds a sweet spot to prance within and her affectionate nature feels real. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Quinton Jones as Larry, a role with few lines but demanding as he supplies all of the musical accompaniment for the show. Though the volume of his keyboard is set about three to six decibels too high in a few places and obscures a few lyrics, Quinton’s playing is professional without being sterile, his timing perfectly matching the cast. Or is it their singing that matches up with his playing? Well, whichever it is, it’s all done seamlessly.

It’s interesting to note the use of “tranny” and show titles that are topical to the time period of the play (2004-2008), and I’m glad no attempt has been made to update them. Though we now know “tranny” is not politically correct, and I doubt many people remember the short-lived Broadway musical Brooklyn (I saw it – and forgot it), for [title of show] to work it needs to remain as it is, representative of a specific time and place, even if some of the language may make us wince now or the references be too obscure for all but the hardened show queen to nod at in recognition. Whoops, is “show queen” wrong to say too? Well, I think I am one, so I’m giving myself a pass.

CATCO’s [title of show] is only limited by the source material, which at its best is insightful and witty, and at its worst is overlong and repetitive. I’m not sure if its expansion from a ninety-minute one act-er to a two act-er with intermission occurred when it finally moved to Broadway for its brief run in 2008, but I think it was an unfortunate misstep. While my friend and I felt the first act ran along nicely, the second act started to meander and not know when or how to end. I get how the show was constantly being updated as it went along to incorporate the Broadway transfer, but some tightening throughout would’ve helped quite a bit. Still, it’s an admirable piece with some memorable songs and an original message about the creative process. If at the end of the day it is a **/ star show with a ***/ star cast and production, that means that it’s still more than worth the visit and your time.

*** out of ****

[title of show] continues through to July 12th in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2014-2015/title-of-show

My friend Jocelyn Nevel and I at the play.