The story of Jason Wise, who will tumble into Spokane this weekend as Tumblebrutus in the national touring version of “Cats,” illustrates two of the key reasons why this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical keeps packing ’em in after 30 years:
• “Cats” appeals tremendously to kids.
• “Cats” embodies a special kind of showbiz magic that goes beyond song and dance. “Cats” creates an entire world – a vivid feline society – in a dingy alleyway.
This world had the 10-year-old Jason Wise completely mesmerized.
“I was obsessed,” said Wise, now 21, by phone from a tour stop. “I had the DVD – or I guess it was a VHS in those days. So the commercial came on the TV and I said, ‘Oh, my God, Mom, “Cats” is coming live to Binghamton! I have to go, I have to go.’ ”
Binghamton, N.Y., was only about an hour away from his hometown of Ithaca, N.Y. His mother promised him that if he had a great report card, she’d take him.
“For the first time in my life, I did well in school,” said Wise.
So they attended the show, in the far reaches of the balcony, and Wise was enraptured. Afterward, they were eating at a diner across the street when he saw a man wearing a “Cats” T-shirt having a smoke outside the stage door.
Wise pulled his mom out of the diner and across the street. He ran up to the man and blurted, rapid-fire, “My name’s Jason and I’m 10 years old and I’m going to be on Broadway and I sing and I act and I know every line in ‘Cats.’ ”
His mom apologized for him and asked the man what she could do to further her son’s dreams. The actor graciously gave him sound advice about continuing his singing and dance lessons. Then he said, “Wait a minute,” and ducked back into the stage door for a minute. He came back out with a “Cats” poster, signed by everyone in the cast.
He said, “I want you to take this home and hang it on your wall and whenever you are discouraged or frustrated, look at it and remember that if you work hard enough, whatever you want to happen for yourself will happen for yourself.”
A little less than 10 years later, Wise was hired for the national tour of “Cats.” The experience, he said, has “lived up to my expectations.”
“I thought, ‘OK, now that I have been able to do the show, I can understand why I was so fascinated with it,’ ” said Wise. “But even now, after learning the show, I really don’t know what contributes to its success. I could say it’s the mix or the recipe – but really, it just works. And it’s astonishing to see. It just universally works.”
Once he was in the show, Wise managed to track down that former “Cats” actor. Wise called him up and recounted the story.
“He told me, ‘You’ve managed to make a grown man cry,’ ” said Wise.
Today, Wise takes his own responsibility as a cast member seriously.
“I always encourage kids who want to do this to come to the stage door and talk to me, because that experience is so near and dear to my heart,” said Wise.
The national tour has played Spokane in 1987, 1988, 1993, 1997 and 2004. In addition, the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre did its own version in 2004.
Yet, as the ad slogan says: “ ‘Cats’: Now and forever.” A new generation of 10-year-olds is ready to visit that alleyway.
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