Usually, actors spend rehearsals trying to become someone else — another person.
Performers in the latest production at Denton Community Theatre have spent weeks of rehearsals becoming something else: cats.
Director Ash Robbins said it took some convincing for the company to take a chance on the blockbuster, Tony Award-winning Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Cats.
Cats poses a nearly impossible demand for performers. The all-sung score is classic Webber stuff, a mix of operetta and soaring pop. But it’s also a musical driven by dance. Players move in the liquid elegance of a cat. Jumping, climbing and landing like a feather are part of the illusion on stage. And then there is the source material — T.S. Eliot’s playful (and sometimes dense) poetry in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
Robbins said the production board balked at the demands of the beloved musical.
“They didn’t want to do the show because of the dance,” Robbins said. “On one hand, yeah, Cats is a big dance show. On the other hand, I was like, ‘What?’ You’re sitting between two universities with great dance programs. The dancers are here.”
Choreographer Nicole Probst, who studied dance and choreography at the University of North Texas, said she approached the musical the same way she’s approached others.
“I knew we were going to have different levels of experience, dance-wise. I knew we would see people who are experienced dancers, and I knew we were going to see people who don’t dance,” Probst said.
During auditions, performers sang a song and performed a dance or movement in their strongest style. Probst was looking for soloists for more sophisticated numbers and aerial stunts, and she was looking for performers who could move with confidence, but who weren’t expected to perform advanced choreography.
Ultimately, Probst said her job was to get performers to move in character and to relate to other performers physically. She wasn’t tasked with telling the story in dance.
“I think as far as the show goes, a lot of people walk in thinking there is a story,” Probst said. “There is a little bit of a story, but I wouldn’t say there’s anything like a storyline. The story is the poetry, which gives me opportunities to create lines and pantomime. You’re not going to see this show and see choreography that’s about technique. My goal isn’t to show off what I can do. My goal is to show off what they can do. They all deserve to be on that stage.”
Cast members said they showed up to audition because of nostalgia — Cats claimed an iconic spot on Broadway for 18 years. Barbara Streisand recorded the musical’s best-known power ballad, “Memory,” in 1981, and the track reached the 52nd spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
“Really, for me it was the opportunity to do Cats,” said Zach Judah, who just graduated from UNT with a theater degree. He plays the role of Munkustrap. “Growing up, this was the first musical I remember people around me getting really into. I didn’t actually know it was supposed to be such a heavy dance show. After I tried out, I watched the movie and saw that my character has like a nine-minute dance with another character.”
Karrington Davis, who plays the role of Bombalurina, found out about auditions on an internet audition site. She’s studying theater in college, and was impatient to do a musical.
“We weren’t doing any musicals at community college,” she said. “I begged the professor to do a musical next semester, but the next season is all plays. This is what I want to do with my life, so I came to the audition. I don’t know if the directors knew, but I was a mess and then got cast as the confident, sexy cat.”
Like Judah, Lilee Gifford was in the cast of Little Shop of Horrors along with Cats cast mates Cyrus Carrillo and Layla Brent.
“Denton is where I come to get my arts,” said Gifford, who plays the role of Demeter. “I do ballet at home, but Denton is where I come to do more. I was really excited to be part of it.”
Carrillo, who plays the glam-rock feline Rum Tum Tugger, said he bumped into Robbins at the Campus Theatre on his way to auditions for another show.
“Ash asked me to audition, so I slapped together an audition song and a dance I can’t believe I remembered,” he said. “I didn’t make the other shows I tried out for, but I got this one.
The performers said they’ve spent hours approximating feline moves and postures.
Tyler Halbrooks said the movement requires much more concentration than a typical show. Halbrooks plays the roles of Skimbleshanks and Mungojerrie.
“Not only are the movements very catlike, but any move you make has to be like a cat,” Halbrooks said. “Even when you’re sitting there onstage watching someone else, you ask yourself, ‘Wait. Am I sitting like a cat or a person?’
“It’s harder than you think, because people walk with their limbs in opposition. Cats don’t.”
Carrillo said the players still have to build a character.
“The movement varies from character to character. I’m a glam-rock cat, and everything pretty much starts from the pelvis,” he said.
Melissa Feldman plays the coveted role of Grizabella, a lonely and decrepit cat.
“I don’t have to do any dancing,” she said. “But I have a huge song. So no pressure.”
Music director John Norine leads the cast and orchestra through one of the most popular scores in American theater history, and the performers credit him for honoring the styles Webber crafted for the characters.
Robbins said that for all the effort the players put into becoming animals, the musical has something to say about the human condition. Grizabella craves acceptance, and other characters jockey for influence.
“It’s the same thing that drew people to Toy Story,” Robbins said. “You connect to your humanity through the relationships you see onstage. You get to look into another world. There’s a sense of oneness, even though all of these cats come from different walks of life.”
Halbrooks said that if the performers do their jobs, they’ll enchant audiences.
“There is this elegance and beauty to every part of it,” he said. “Down to its core, this musical is so entertaining. You can’t watch this and not be just intrigued.”
“I wanted to invoke a sense of magic for everyone who comes through the door,” she said.