The claws are out at the Grove

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First Posted: 7/16/2013

The phenomena begin in 1981 in London’s West end and took a leap into American waters on Broadway the following year. The London production ran for 21 years, the Broadway for 18, and it is the second-longest running show on Broadway – so why hasn’t the area seen a production of “Cats” yet?

Outside of some youth performances, the famed stage show has yet to hit adult theater in the area, but that will all change with performances at Theatre at the Grove in Nuangola from July 26 to Aug. 11.

“Cats” is a musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber that’s based on the T.S. Eliot work “Old Possum’s Book of Practical cats.” It follows a tribe of cats called the Jellicles and the night they make the Jellicle choice, the picking of which cat will ascend to Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life.

“Cats” is one of director Michael Marone’s favorite shows, but that has posed some challenges that go along with putting on a show you’ve seen five times.

“If there’s something you like so much, you try your damnedest to replicate it, of course,” he said, “but it’s a little hard to replicate dance numbers you see on Broadway on a stage that’s an eighth of the size.”

There’s a huge positive to the small venue, however – an element of intimacy.

“Cats will come right up to your seat and table and we have entrances that happen through the audience,” Marone said. “The cast is on stage for about 80 percent of the show and even when they aren’t, it’s fun to still see that they’re in character. Someone might be hanging out in a corner watching another cat on stage but they’re still licking themselves, pretending to be a cat. It’s constant acting.”

Though the show is wildly popular and has stood the test of time, actor Paul Winarski said the biggest criticism is that there’s no plot.

“But, there actually is,” he continued. “Each little moment is a plot and it’s all tied together by the Jellicle Ball.”

Each little moment is brought about by a plethora of different cats, all with characters so strong that it makes up for the supposed “lack of plot.”

“It’s all about the personality that T.S. Elliot brought to each individual character in the poems,” Winarski said. “They’re really strong and there’s a variety of different personalities. The cats are like human beings.”

“You have legions of fans of this show that you see online talking and discussing each cat. Everyone has their favorite. It could be the smallest role, but someone identifies with that.”

Winarski plays two roles, one of which is Gus, the Theatre Cat. That character in particular provides insight that Winarski and his fellow cast members can relate to.

“Gus is an elderly cat who’s seen better days,” Winarski said. “He’s spent his entire life on stage and he’s looking back at his career at a time when, as he says, the theater is certainly not what it was. It’s very touching, and of course it’s something we also see in our profession, with shows full of spectacle and overwhelming effects. It takes millions to mount a show any more and the characters are often forgotten.”

Winarksi said another cat in the show, Rum Tum Tugger, is reminiscent of a 70s rock star, with a lot of people equating it to a Mick Jagger-type of personality.

Marone’s favored cat is Mr. Mistoffelees, a young cat with magical powers he can’t fully control.

“I like that song and the big dance number that goes along with it,” Marone said of the character. “I’ve also always been a fan of magic and magicians, so to pair wonderful music and dancing with the concept of magic is great.”

The cats all came to life thanks to the talents of the actors, but another facet to them that makes the show so strong is the spectacular costuming and makeup that comes along with it, giving each cat an even more distinct personality. Grove will be doing a mixture of things for its costuming, in making its own pieces and renting from another theater that put on the show in the past, and a local salon will provide the makeup.

For those involved with “Cats,” it’s no wonder why the show has lasted in popularity as long as it has, and the folks at the Grove hope to show the audience why.

“It’s just a novelty, there’s nothing else like it,” Marone said. “What other show do you know that you can see non-stop dancing and singing from beginning to end by non-human characters? I think that now, other than something like ‘The Lion King,’ there’s nothing like this. It’s truly whimsical, carefree, and unique.”

Or perhaps it’s something not as deep.

“I mean, who doesn’t want to watch men dance around in unitards?” Marone said with a laugh.