If director Dave Campbell has nine lives, he has spent four of his bringing Cats to the stage. His fourth go at the musical, based on poems by T.S. Eliot, opens at the Huron Country Playhouse today (May 30) and Campbell thinks he’s finally got it right.
“I’ve finally found the right mix of people and I’ve finally got the right amount of set,” he says. “I originally did it in Orillia on a budget of nothing. Alex Mustakas came out and saw it and realized the potential. I don’t think it’s the kind of show anybody would have decided to just do. They would have said there’s no way you can do this in regional theatre. Not with the resources you have.”
Taking advantage of the facilities the Playhouse has to offer, Campbell is also leaning on the tremendous talent working to produce the show.
“You can only really do this show with incredible performers,” he says, “which for me is great. I have to have the best people that are available: they have to be able to sing, they have to be able to dance, they have to be able to act.”
Playing a strong supporting role is the set, a role Playhouse audiences always appreciate.
“We’ve been very lucky that we have a set designer, Tim Webb, who is extremely creative. He works with what little we have to create these incredible out of scale things because everything has to appear either 3:1 or 7:1 to make people look small like cats.”
Cats was turned into a musical in the early 80s, and is based on vignettes from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and other poems by Eliot, which were designed for a child audience.
“Back in the 80s, when they stitched this show together from his poems,” Campbell says, “one of the problems is that they realized they did not have an ongoing story. So they dug through all the T.S. Eliot work until finally his wife came up with one piece that he hadn’t finished. It turned out this was the story of an adult cat. As they looked at it they realized it was a sad story. When they asked his widow, she said he never really wanted to finish it because all the other ones were suitable for kids but this one wasn’t because it was the story of an old cat. She was sick and she was tired and it was an unfinished poem as well.
“So they took this story of Grizabella and they wove it through all these little vignettes, so what you have is the story of a cat who’s left the tribe, went out and lived the high life, gone to parties, she’s basically had it all while these people stayed at home, raised kids, toed the line.
“Once a year, the cats get together in the junkyard to find out from their leader Old Deuteronomy who is going to move on to the next level called the Heaviside Layer, which you can interpret as anything. There are huge parties and celebrations. And this night is the night Grizabella decides to come back. They’re not particularly happy that she’s come back and ruined their party.”
The production brings other experienced Cats to the Playhouse.
“I’m really lucky,” he says. “I have quite a few people who did the original production in Toronto. For example, the woman who is playing Grizabella, the old cat, played Sillabub, a kitten in Toronto. So it’s sort of like art imitates life. Mike Jackson who has played several roles in Cats in Germany, as well as being on the national tour of Chicago, is here playing the role of Rum Tum Tugger.”
Backing up the 18 cast members are another 18 or so crewmembers who build and make the show run smoothly.
“We have a crew that is really devoted to doing great work. Even though they have limited resources, they go as far as they can to do exactly what you want. You can’t buy that passion or excitement.”