Huron County Playhouse
to June 23
(519) 238-6000 for tickets
Story and portraits by Casey Lessard
“It’s worth the drive anywhere. So many people don’t know what we have.”
Not everyone is a cat person, but considering the quality of the actors, dancers and production values on display at the Huron Country Playhouse, it’s easy to see why so many, like Bob Hughes of London, are Cats people.
“I’ve seen it three or four times,” Hughes said. “We saw the Broadway production in Toronto. This is Broadway quality – the choreography was brilliant. The set functions so well. It just moves.”
As Hughes alludes, the play is best considered a showcase for two things: the dance sequences and the set.
“This is what you’d see in Toronto for $150,” says Drayton Entertainment artistic director Alex Mustakas, “but you’re seeing it here for $30. Same performers; same production values. You can’t beat it out here in Huron County.
“It’s a lot of steps for them to learn in two weeks. It’s amazing they can put it together.”
For most in the cast, it hasn’t really been two weeks; out of 18 in the show, only six have never performed in Cats before. Demonstrating their clear experience are Michael Donald and Neesa Kenemy as Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, troublemakers who cartwheel as a single unit across the stage in what is likely the most impressive dance sequence of the entire musical.
“This is our fourth production together as Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer,” Kenemy says. “It’s getting easier but I don’t think you could do it with just two weeks. It takes a lot of training and stamina.”
“The hardest thing is being a cat when you’re not actually doing a number,” Donald says. “You’re in positions that are not natural. It’s easier to do our number than be a cat all the time.”
“It’s very grueling,” says Choreographer Gino Berti, who remounted Gillian Lynne’s original Broadway choreography. “The show is very detailed and very stylized. I was with the cast in Toronto and we had five weeks. These guys had two weeks and looked like they were hit by a truck every night. We are always in awe of the amount of work this cast put into it.”
One of the rookies is Julia Juhas, cast as the prissy Siamese cat Cassandra.
“It was difficult at first, but the whole team was helpful,” Juhas says. “They weren’t just putting pressure on you to get it right right away. It was a good experience. It’s unbelievable the talent in this cast.”
For her role, Juhas had to find a character inside that director Dave Campbell says was a challenge for the actor – the role of a bitch.
“One tip I got is that it’s okay to be awkward at first,” she says. “It’s a lot in the eyes and the body language. It’s definitely fun.”
Creating a character is something Mike Jackson has had plenty of time to do. The actor has played attention-grabbing Rum Tum Tugger in Germany and another time under Campbell’s direction.
Jackson’s character has an excess of personality, spinning his tail as he swivels his hips and tells off a cat who is trying to steal his spotlight.
“I work alone, kitty,” he says.
Whether it’s a attention-seeker, a fat cat, or a snob, everyone in the audience will be reminded of at least one cat they’ve known. Grizabella, for example, looks like the cat that begs for scraps outside your favourite restaurant. An aging party girl, she’s been through the ringer but gets your sympathy when she introduces the play’s most recognizable song, Memory, which is reprised later in the play by other characters.
“I remember the time I knew what happiness was,” Grizabella sings.
As the character most likely to go to the Heaviside Layer, which all the cats are vying to do, her appearances and the song string the vignette story lines together. Innocent and cute, 21-year old Ashley Fenster’s kitten Victoria reaches out to the Grizabella when no one else will.
“Just being very playful and loving every moment,” Fenster says of her motivation. “There are times when the moment is just about me. You know when it’s your chance to shine. But you also don’t want to steal that moment away from anyone else.”
You might be forgiven for thinking Mike Jackson, whose character is sometimes called the Elvis cat, would feel the opposite way.
“It’s totally not like me,” says the actor, who the director says is shy and gentle. “It’s fun to dress up and act up. This is a fun show for dancers because you get to act and use your body. When it’s good, it’s really good.”