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article imageAll-Canadian cast remounts the classic musical 'Cats' in Toronto Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Jun 6, 2013 in Entertainment
Toronto - As the song says, “Let the memory live again.” It's been more than three decades since “Cats” opened in London's West End and on Broadway, redefining the stage musical. Now, the beloved show is back to win over a new generation – in Toronto.
Producer Marlene Smith, who helmed the highly successful, multiple Dora-winning 1985 Toronto production at the Elgin Theatre, hopes to repeat history this year with a 21st-century update of Andrew Lloyd Webber's show. This revival, currently in previews at the Panasonic Theatre, features an all-Canadian cast, including Ma-Anne Dionisio, Charles Azulay and even a cast member from the original Toronto production, Susan Cuthbert.
“People have asked me again and again, 'What's the story of Cats?'” says veteran director Dave Campbell, who has already tackled this musical several times. “Many issues get explored. There's ageism, prejudice, acceptance and risk. And in little vignettes, these cats expose some of our underlying bad and good behaviour: being caregivers, or being insensitive to the needs of others. Cats, like all animals, are of the moment. They do what comes next. They don't think heavily about it. It's stuff we'd really like to do in our world, but we can't, because we're far too polite.”
Cats, which first hit the stage in 1981, is based mostly on T.S. Eliot's poetry collection Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Published in 1939, it's a book of whimsical verse that Eliot wrote for his godchildren, a far cry from his darker, more serious works like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Wasteland”. Webber's show sets music to the poems while establishing a through line in which Old Deuteronomy, the aged patriarch of the Jellicle cat tribe, has to choose one of the cats to be reborn into a new life on the Heavyside Layer. (The most famous song in Cats, “Memory”, is actually a reworking of Eliot's “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” by Trevor Nunn.)
“Although Marlene's first production had a certain vibe,” says Campbell, “we're trying to edge it up and make it interesting to today's audiences. Every group brings an exciting new take on all these characters. This has certainly provided opportunities that I've never had before in setting the show. It doesn't feel like theatre to me, because the space is so neutral. The set kind of spills right out into the audience, and we let the cast spill right out into the audience. At times, you may find a cat sitting right beside you and staring at you. I'm taking a great piece and putting a new polish on it.”
A Ryerson Theatre School grad, Campbell has more than a quarter-century under his belt in the entertainment industry. He has choreographed and directed TV and stage productions throughout North America and even in Europe and Japan. This includes five previous incarnations of Cats, one in Massachusetts and four in Canada.
“The challenge in this show is not to have people look like they're dressed as cats onstage, but to have them gradually become cats to you,” Campbell explains. “The show uses the original Gillian Lynne choreography, although we've made changes where we feel we can get more punch out of it. This woman spent a long time trying to make everything look feline and non-human. How can you dress up a six-foot man as a cat to make them believable as a cat? Well, if they stop having human characteristics, it happens all on its own. That's another magic of theatre.
“We have such a mix of Toronto theatre veterans. We have people who've been in the business twenty-five years or more, and people who've been in the business twenty-five minutes. They're learning from each other. The young ones revitalize the old ones to remember what it was like to be out there for the first time, and the ones with a wealth of experience teach the younger ones.”
One of those experienced veterans is Charles Azulay, whom Toronto musical lovers may remember from the city's 1993 production of Miss Saigon (which also starred Dionisio). Returning to the T.O. stage for the first time in years, Azulay takes on Old Deuteronomy in this show.
Cats was the first big musical that I ever saw,” Azulay remembers aloud. “I grew up in Hamilton, and my parents drove the family to the Big Smoke for a night out, and we saw the show. There was a very quiet moment in the first act, and suddenly, I heard some gentleman in the audience somewhere say, 'I don't know what the hell's going on!' very loudly. And that has always stayed with me. As entertaining as it is, the story's hard to follow for some people. But it was the first show I ever saw, and I thought, 'I'd love to do something like that.'”
It might seem odd to have the youthful-looking Azulay play the ancient, wizened Deuteronomy. But while makeup obviously helps, Azulay feels that his parenting experience suits him to the part perfectly. “Looks can be deceiving. You bring what you have and what your strengths are. My strengths are taking care of children and protecting them. When I'm walking down the hall, everybody loves to come and give me a big hug. It's just this protective, fatherly thing. Even onstage, a lot of the kittens come and snuggle up against me. I think that comes from being a parent.”
Another cast member who's a parent is Cuthbert, reprising her 1980s roles as Jennyanydots, Griddlebone and Jellylorum. “Originally, I played Griddlebone for a year and Jellylorum for another year,” Cuthbert explains. “With this production, I'm actually playing both characters in the same show. I'm a little bit older, yet I'm playing twice as much as I did back then! But I know what the show takes at this point, so my stamina is building gradually.”
Even more than Dionisio and Azulay are, Cuthbert should be familiar to longtime Toronto theatregoers. She played Christine in the original Hogtown production of Webber's Phantom of the Opera. And as a teenager, she played the title role of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical at the O'Keefe Centre – now the Sony Centre – in 1979. (I myself saw this production of Anne when I was six years old.)
“It's so much fun, and I feel so lucky,” she says of this new Cats. “When I'm out there, I sometimes tear up when I start doing some of the dances, because I never thought I'd revisit this. It's exciting. This cast is incredible. They are so talented and so enthusiastic. That's what I really like about it – just feeding off of their enthusiasm and drive and openness and love of the theatre. It can't help but allow that to inspire you.”
How does it compare to the first time for her? “It's even better now. When I was younger, the characters I'm playing didn't quite fit comfortably, but now, it's a lot easier. They're older characters, so I can relate to that more now and draw on my life experience.”
Cats ran for twenty-one years in London and nearly eighteen on Broadway. It continues to be staged around the world. Why? What has made this musical endure?
“Although T.S. Eliot's poems were written in the '30s, the wisdom contained within them is absolutely crazy,” says Campbell. “Just Google his quotes. 'If you're not underwater, how do you know how tall you are?' Good stuff to know. You can just sit back and relax, and it's a very relaxing evening of beautiful pictures, if you like that sort of thing. But I like people to watch the show and gradually go, 'Oh, I know what's going on. It's not just singing and dancing cats; we're headed for something.'”
According to Azulay, “It's a show for everybody. You can bring your family. My kids are at the age that I was when I first saw it. They've never seen it. They're excited. This is a really universal, bring-everybody, feel-good show. Even if they've never seen it, people know 'Cats'. They know the name.”
And Cuthbert's answer? “The show is about redemption. Its theme of forgiveness is powerful for all of us and for the human spirit. I think we can all connect with that. On another level, the dancing is incredible. It's so novel to see people playing animals so believably. There's something for everyone: there's comedy, there's dance, the music is beautiful, the lighting is spectacular.
“I just love it! I love this show,” says Cuthbert.
The official opening night of Cats takes place on Tuesday, June 11 at the Panasonic Theatre.
More about Theatre, Musicals, Cats, Andrew lloyd webber, TS Eliot
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