FSCJ HIGH SCHOOL SUMMER MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW
A DUAL CRITICS REVIEW BY DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM [email protected]
The FSCJ Artist Series and the Wilson Center for the Arts opened the 11th edition of the Summer Musical Theatre Experience (SMTE) on July 22, 2016 with a revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats,” with additional performances scheduled during July 23 –24 and July 29 – 31. You can order tickets by phone at (904) 646-2222 or (904) 442-2929 or online at www.fscjartistseries.org. All shows are at the Wilson Center on the South Campus of FSCJ on Beach Boulevard in Jacksonville, Florida.
Cats have nine lives, or so the myth goes. “Cats” obviously has infinite lives, which have included runs of eighteen years on Broadway and over twenty years in London. The musical, which has earned billions of dollars, remains immensely popular. Of note, a Broadway revival is now in previews on Broadway, with an official opening scheduled for the end of July; FSCJ was extremely lucky to secure the rights to this production.
While “Cats” is famous today, its early success appeared uncertain. Mr. Webber had signed Royal Shakespearean actress Judi Dench to play the key role of Grizabella but she was injured in a fall during rehearsals. Needless to say, Webber was in a spot, as she was the only big-name star in the cast. He hoped to get Barbara Streisand but she backed out for security reasons; she did however, record “Memory,” the show’s most well-known song, which became a big hit. When the show opened in London on May 11, 1981, Webber had secured only half of the financing needed and had to take out a second mortgage on his home to cover the remainder.
The roadshow version was brought to Jacksonville by the Artist Series several times, and played a total of thirteen weeks over that period of time. We are sure that many of our readers have seen it more than once over the years.
The musical is based on famed poet T. S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” The SMTE production is spectacular and certainly belongs in the “Cats” hall of fame, if there is one. There are a total of sixty – yes, sixty – cats in this version.
Scenic Designer Dustin Pettergrew has updated the junkyard home of the cats. The full stage is used and the play opens with an expansive photo of the Jacksonville skyline at twilight. The old tires are gone, replaced by piles of old and unwanted electronic gear and cables. Technical Director and Lighting Designer Johnny Pettegrew, who has been involved with all the previous musicals, has created a dynamic light show.
The show did not have a named director, but Samuel Fisher, with the title of Conceptual Artist, provided the guidance of one. He is a talented professional who has directed a number of plays in our local area, including two SMTE plays. He is a co-founder of the Phase Eight Theatre Company.
“Cats” has always been admired for its choreography, and the production delivers with dozens of dancing felines, who even come out from the stage into the audience during some numbers. It took not one, but two choreographers to work the magic needed for with this huge cast. The multi-talented Curtis Williams is known throughout Jacksonville (and the rest of the country) for his teaching, directing, costume design, and spectacular choreography. Amber Daniels has previously choreographed several SMTE productions, including last year’s “Wizard of Oz” and is a co-founder of the Phase Eight Theatre Company.
Cast members were chosen for both their dancing and singing abilities, and Vocal Director Aaron DeCicco had a gorgeous variety of voices to work with. A credit goes as well to Sound Designer Phillip Allison for his talents in making all those lyrics clear throughout the auditorium.
“Meowstro” Dr. Paul Weikle (Music Director) led the fantastic sixteen-piece orchestra tucked away below the stage. The costumes are one of the wow factors of the musical, and Camala Pitts and Dorinda Quiles (Costume Designers) worked their sewing machines overtime creating eye-catching kitty clothing. We saw cats of every color: black, white, gray, yellow, orange, and brown cats, spotted cats, calico cats, striped cats . . . Cast members attended special classes given by Makeup Designer Jay Deen and applied their own makeup before each performance; each cat had a distinctively different face. And here is a bit of cat trivia: The original Broadway show reportedly used over 3,000 pounds of Tibetan Yak hair to make wigs for their cats.
We saw cats brave and fearsome, young and old, majestic and magical. Old Deuteronomy is the venerable sage, who decides who is fated to leave the tribe behind on the night they have gathered. Munkustrap is the show’s main narrator and story teller. Mistoffelees is a magician, while Macavity is menacing. Gus, the old theatre cat, has Jemima as his partner. The aged glamour cat Grizabella is perhaps the most famous cat, who sings the poignant “Memory.” And we meet dozens more of the junkyard’s denizens during this two-hour journey.
The Principal Cats as they appear in the program are: Alyvia Anderson (Demeter), Garrett Bennett (Bustsopher Jones/Asparagus “Gus”), Anna Beyer (Rumpleteazer), Malik Bilbrew (Munkustrap), Paul Caldwell (Old Deuteronomy) Kane Carter (Mungojerrie) Jeremy Ferri (Rum Tum Tugger), Samantha Jenkins (Bombalurina), Amy Kurtz (Macavity), Emma Lakey (Jemima), Hannah Mendillo (Jennyanydots Gumbie Cat), Charis Ouk (Grizabella), Olivia Philips (Victoria), Mallorie Sievert (Quaxo), Gannon Thomas (Skimbleshanks), Abby Watson (Jellylorum) and Reese Weaver (Mistoffelees).
Supporting Cats are Cross Blocker, Ned Franklin, Sara Fullford, Rachel Garland, Ryan Girard, Mackenna Jacobs, Lucas Kolenc, Kyla Kramer, Mickenzie Lee, Jack Niemczyk, Ryleigh Taylor, and Kyle Thompson
Ensemble Cats included Cait Couch, Tristan Cuartas, Deena Davis, Emma Despres, Keeley Doski, Amelia Foreman, Liberty Frederickson, Cassidy Goldman, Hope Hackney, Keely Holcombe, Cali Jacobs, Sophia Jacobs, Trinity Jacobs, Rachel Johns, Ashton McClain, Erin Messersmith, Alex Monk, Abigail Morrell, Zaria Moss, Hallie Newton, Hattie Newton, Amanda Norris, Shay Porter, Haley Reeves, Madison Samuels, Adia Scott, Natalie Skala, Cameron Thomas, Mia Vazquez, Isabella Williams and Alice Woodward.
When Producer/Program Director Beth Harvey conceived the idea for a summer high school musical she launched a program that is an absolute must see for local audiences. All eleven productions have been excellent in every way. “Cats” is just plain fun and the show zips by in two hours of glorious visual and musical pleasure. If you haven’t been dazzled in a theatre lately, then by all means go see “Cats.” Be sure to take your camera, as the cast comes out into the lobby to meow and meet the audience and the photo opportunities are fantastic for young and old.