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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘This show is crazy’: Spokane Civic Theatre undertakes massive production of ‘Cats’

By Azaria Podplesky For The Spokesman-Review

A group of cats, called the Jellicles, must come together to make the “Jellicle choice,” which involves deciding which of them will rise to the “Heaviside Layer” and be born anew.


But thanks to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which was based on a book of poetry by T.S. Eliot called “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” memorable catlike costumes and impressive choreography, “Cats” quickly became a commercial success, at one time becoming the longest-running production on both Broadway and the West End. It’s now the fifth- and seventh-longest-running production, respectively.

Almost exactly 43 years after its premiere, “Cats” will open at Spokane Civic Theatre on Friday. It’s director Jake Schaefer’s understanding that Civic’s production is the first nonprofessional or nontouring production of “Cats” in the Inland Northwest.

“I understand why,” he said. “It’s a gigantic production.”

Despite the theatrical mountain one must climb to produce “Cats,” Schaefer said Civic chose the musical because it’s a strong close to the season. Knowing he’d need help if he and Civic were going to pull this off, Schaefer reached out to the Gonzaga University dance program for dancer management expertise and additional dancers for the musical.

Schaefer said Gonzaga really signed on once it learned choreographer Bonni Dichone was on board. Dichone, who Schaefer said made original “Cats” choreographer Gillian Lynne’s moves more approachable while still retaining her signature steps, is a former professor of mathematics at Gonzaga and is also an actor and performer who appeared in the Spokane-filmed and -inspired “Dreamin’ Wild.”

Before rehearsals began, the performers had six weeks of dance and conditioning training. This was partly to help with the amount of choreography “Cats” necessitates, including the 11-minute “Jellicle Ball” dance near the end of the first act, but also to add an educational component to the production.

“This has been a great opportunity to develop dance in so many of our local performers and also infuse our rehearsal process with education-focused effort,” Schaefer said. “It’s really important for me and the board of directors because that’s Civic’s lifeline in the development of young artists. It’s what we do before everything for years and years and years.”

Along with direction from Schaefer and choreography from Dichone, “Cats” features additional direction from Jean Hardie and music direction from Henry McNulty, who will lead a 10-piece band.

The production stars Kim Berg (Asparagus), Sarah Braun (Tantomile), Jameson Elton (Skimbleshanks), Maren Forsnes (Mistoffelees), Jean Hardie (Old Deuteronomy), Drake Haren (Bustopher Jones), Emma Hedberg (Cassandra), Karlin Kahler (Demeter), Mairead Kahler (Electra), Colleen Kirsten (Jennyanydots), Ruby Krajic (Rumpleteazer), Jaidan Lester (Tumblebrutus), Nicole Ostlie (Sillabub), Carmyn Parks (Jellylorum), Nathan Pichette (Macavity), Julia Pyke (Grizabella), Daniel Renz (Rum Tum Tugger), Dana Sammond (Exotica), Heather Stephens (Etcetera), Jonah Taylor (Munkustrap), Clio Tzetos (Victoria), Taylor Wenglikowski (Bombalurina), Josh White (Mungojerrie) and Sydney Zinnecker (Coricopat).

When “Cats” opened, it simultaneously became a hit and a musical people loved to hate. The same elements that intrigued some viewers, like the catlike physicalities of the performers and the audience interaction, made others laugh at, not with, the production.

The poorly received 2019 film adaptation didn’t help the musical’s reputation. Schaefer had heard it all before and decided to address the wackiness from the get-go.

“This show is crazy,” he told the cast and crew. “And, we’re doing it.”

Rehearsals often started with an exercise to “deepen their catting” in which actors slinked around the stage, reacting to dynamic changes in a piece of instrumental music as a cat might. What started as an uncomfortable challenge quickly began to feel more natural as the cast accepted the fact that “Cats” is a “bizarre” production.

“Their detail, in my opinion, is stronger than the last national tour I saw,” Schaefer said. “So many of the people in this production are really well-rounded, studied performers, and typically ‘Cats’ casts dancers, so when you put actors in and train up their dance, all the nuance comes out.”

While still present, Schaefer said the audience engagement that viewers have come to expect from “Cats” has been toned down for the safety of the performers.

Adding even more to the theatrical mountain, “Cats” is as technically intense as it is choreographically. The first act alone, Schaefer said, features 198 light cues. For comparison, season opener “The Addams Family” featured 150 cues throughout the entire show.

The whole cast is on stage for the entire production, turning a three-to-one scale junkyard designed by Peter Rossing into their Jellicle playground, and near the end of the show, the chosen Jellicle cat is taken to the Heaviside Layer via an “engineered contraption” that will ascend and exit the stage with the performer on board.

It’s these extreme showcases of skill, Schaefer said, that keep viewers coming back to “Cats.”

“It’s like watching an expert athlete or dancer and seeing the number of skills they’ve developed collide,” he said. “And in this show’s case, it’s the dancing and the singing and being dressed as a cat. It’s the crazy three-to-one scale set. It’s the accumulation of the elements that I think is the most fascinating to people. And I think that’s where the love/hate comes in. It’s bizarre. There are humans crawling around and yet it’s fascinating that while they’re crawling around, what’s peeking out from each of their person is this unmatched ability.”

That unmatched ability inspires Schaefer to keep climbing the theatrical mountain.

“I count my blessings every day,” he said in regard to the cast and crew. “Every rehearsal, I’m grateful.”