On Stage: National tour of Cats returns to Philly

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By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

Perhaps only in Istanbul do cats have numbers comparable in a way similar to those amassed by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical “Cats.”

Istanbul, a major city in Turkey that straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosporus Strait, is home to more than 40,000 stray cats. A popular saying in the city notes “If you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.”

In the hadith, the collected sayings and actions of Muhammad, there are numerous examples of the Prophet’s fondness for cats.

By one account, the pet cat of Abu Hurayrah saved Muhammad from an attack by a deadly serpent. Muhammad purportedly blessed the cat in gratitude, giving cats the ability to always land on their feet. Cats were considered guardians in other respects for the Islamic world — they defended libraries from destruction by mice and may have helped protect city populations from rat-borne plagues.

The cats in the show that the Kimmel Center’s Broadway Philadelphia series is bringing to Philly for a 12-day run now through June 30 at the Forrest Theatre (1114 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, 215-893-1999, www.kimmelcenter.org), are street cats of a different breed. Not just stray cats, they are Jellicle cats who sing, dance and tell their own stories in the record setting musical.

Numbers associated with “Cats” are also very impressive.

“Cats” is a sung-through musical based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by world-famous poet T. S. Eliot. The musical tells the story of a tribe of cats called the Jellicles and the night they make the “Jellicle choice” — deciding which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life.

Directed by Trevor Nunn and choreographed by Gillian Lynne, “Cats” first opened in the West End in 1981 and then with the same creative team on Broadway in 1982. It won numerous awards, including Best Musical at both the Laurence Olivier Awards and the Tony Awards. By 1994, the musical had grossed over $2 billion worldwide. The London production ran for 21 years (1981–2002; 8,949 performances) and the Broadway production ran for 18 years (1982–2000; 7,485 performances), both setting new records. As of 2018, it is the fourth-longest-running Broadway show and the sixth-longest-running West End show.

The national touring production has been revived for a new generation. The production features new sound design, direction, and choreography. The new choreography is under the direction of Andy Blankenbuehler, who is also the choreographer for “Hamilton.” “Cats” is a multi-generational show that last played in Philadelphia at the Merriam Theater in 2009.

The musical, which has maintained a high level of popularity, is easy to enjoy but not really that easy to figure out. It’s an understandable situation because “Cats” doesn’t really have a plot. Audience members can see “Cats” several times and never really know much about the show except for the costumes, the actors’ athleticism, the popular songs – and the elaborate sets.

Audience members who have seen several productions often gain familiarity with the different cats in the show and their diverse personalities – the cocky Rum Tum Tugger, the mischievous Mr. Mistoffeles and the wise Old Deuteronomy. There are also several lesser-known cats in the show – all with their own distinct personalities. There is Victoria, the little white kitten; Cassandra, the aloof brown-and-cream Abyssinian queen; and Alonzo, the young male who is just beginning to assert himself.

The most-recognized cat in the show is Grizabella the Glamour Cat who sings the most memorable song, “Memory.”. Once a stunning-looking cat, she has fallen from grace and no-one will talk to her. So, there are emotions such as resigned pride because she’s lost her good looks, sadness and some resentment because her family didn’t support her.

Keri René Fuller as Grizabella

In this National Tour, the challenging role of Grizabella is played by Keri René Fuller, a Baldwin Wallace University graduate and member of the Actor’s Equity Association.

“We started rehearsals in December 2018 and went out on January 11,” said Fuller, during a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Cincinnati, Ohio. “I auditioned back in August – specifically for the role of Grizabella.

“I still am intimidated with playing Grizabella. There is something really special about this role – and a pressure to do well. People really want to hear ‘Memory.’ Just the genius writing of ‘Memory’ gets people moved.

“I have a nice long prayer before I sing ‘Memory’ and then it’s time. I go and as soon as I step foot onstage and utter the first line, I’m totally into the moment. I just focus on what I sing.”

Fuller has to get ready to perform and get ready to look like Grizabella – not a quick or easy task.

“Initially, it took me about two hours to get ready pre-show with all the makeup,” said Fuller, who recently was in the Broadway cast of the hit musical “Waitress. “Eventually, my entire pre-show got shorter. It now takes me an hour-and-a-half to leisurely get ready.”

Grizabella is an integral part of the show — and a complex character.

“There are definitely challenges in playing Grizabella,” said Fuller, a native of Bethany, Oklahoma. “You have to incorporate more than just sadness. She is resilient. She is tenacious. She knows humanity has to learn a lesson.

“There is an aspect of graciousness to her. She doesn’t fight other cats. She is very aware she isn’t the cat she once was. It’s a challenge to find all the other layers she presents other than sadness.

“Why don’t the cats like her? Years ago, she was a young cat who lover her family and loved her tribe, but she also got outside. She gets lost along the way. She went through some rough times but all she wants to do is come home. She fights with humility to come back.”

Fortunately, there is a happy ending for Grizabella when she is chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and eventually be reincarnated.

“Old Deuteronomy does the selection but it’s the tribe that actually chooses her,” said Fuller.

Video link for “Cats” – https://youtu.be/Lydl0AjQHoM.

The show at the Forrest Theatre is running now through June 30. Ticket prices range from $62-$122.

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