Review: Art Centre Theatre’s Production of “Cats”

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Shawn Stalter

  • Contributing Critic - Dallas/Ft. Worth

Art Centre Theatre’s performance of the musical “Cats”, currently running through 21 July, offers audiences an eye-opening glimpse into the diverse and complex inner world our feline companions inhabit.

This production’s meticulous attention to scenery details and stage construction instantly transports the audience to the Jellicle Cats’ junkyard kingdom. Once its inhabitants discover the presence of a human audience, they launch into a delightful procession of songs and dances explaining the world through their eyes. The mischievous, the brave, the magical and glamorous cats of yesteryear parade before the audience in a feast for the senses.

Through Meghann Dodd’s well-choreographed dances meticulously paired with brilliantly-crafted costumes, Art Centre Theatre’s performance honors the memory of poet T.S. Eliot’s fantastical collection of feline-centric stories, the “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”. The venerable composer Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted this fantastical collection of poems into one of the most widely-viewed productions ever to grace the world stage.

The Art Center Theater, or ACT, itself, is a cozy and intimate venue where the spirit of theater is alive and well. As the cast of “Cats” takes the stage, it is apparent to the audience that this production is much more than a collection of well-rehearsed songs and choreographed dances. This close-knit theater family is here to pour out their souls to pay homage to their beloved theater classic. Contributing to the intimate nature of the theater itself, the seats at ACT enjoyed a previous incarnation as church pews before being given new life in this unique venue.

As the stage lights fade up and the music begins, graceful and serene young kittens emerge to mesmerize the audience and invite them in to witness tonight’s gathering during “The Invitation to the Jellicle Ball”. Giving context to the events of this night, the large tabby cat, Munkustrap, performed by Andy Gay, explains that this evening one of the members of the kingdom will be born anew into the next incarnation in a series of nine lives.

After Munkustrap’s introduction, it is time to buckle your seatbelt for the lively procession of proud feline personalities which parade across the stage. Each character provides insight into the motivations, desires and traits we all know and love, or at least have grown to appreciate, in our own cats.

There is never a dull moment in this ensemble cast’s immersive performance as feline mannerisms, and quirky cat behavior abounds over Jamey Jamison’s well-appointed stage design at all times. The scenery is well-constructed to provide uninhibited, multi-tiered views of their cat-like reflexes. Although, with so much action packed into a small physical space it is often difficult for the audience to fully appreciate the nuances of each performance.

Audience members then settle in for one of the most endearing and tender moments in this production as Hailey Tran’s Jellylorum helps the aged Gus the Theatre Cat, performed by Ken Schwartz, relive the memories of his glory days as a famous stage actor. The audience sits in rapt silence hanging on every word as heartstrings tug and feelings of nostalgia for the bygone days of youth bubble up from some hidden place.

As the procession continues, the high-energy performance of Ian Stephens as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat takes the entire kingdom of cats and their human audience companions on a delightfully entertaining ride. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end even in this far away junkyard kingdom as a cat-napping ensues.

However, this angst-ridden moment is short lived as the magical Mr. Mistoffelees leaps into action with a bag full of tricks. His high-energy performance is an ensemble-driven masterpiece, with the cast disappearing and reappearing over the entire length of the set. Mr. Mistoffelees’ wild magic show eventually conjures up a surprise guest and returns the Jellicle Ball to its intended purpose.

Other notable performances in this production come from the shunned Glamour Cat, Grizabella, performed by Meghann Dodd, who, much like Gus the Theatre Cat, longs for the days when she knew what happiness was. Through her clear and emotionally-fueled rendition of the time-honored classic, Memory, accompanied by the talented young vocalist, Angeleen DeWitt as Jemima, the audience travels to a unique and introspective space where our own happiest days live. Just as Grizabella wins over the audience with her performance, she also convinces the tribe to accept her back into the Jellicle circle of trust.

At the conclusion of the performance, audience members received some valuable advice from the wise and weathered Old Deuteronomy, played by Rob Frey, in the “Ad-dressing of Cats”. One I will take to heart and that will, hopefully, improve the hot and cold relationship I have with my own cat is to “treat cats with respect”. Solid advice when interacting with such complicated creatures.

No spoiler alerts needed here, but those of you unfamiliar with “Cats” should visit ACT and discover for yourself who will gain new life and live again in the next incarnation of their nine lives!

ACT keeps the future of theater in the Dallas Fort-Worth area bright with a wide range of talented amateur vocalists, dancers, costume designers, makeup artists and more. “Cats”, directed by Elizabeth Hopkins and Ramon Sanchez runs through 21 July with performances from both an adult and child’s cast on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Purchase your ticket and learn more by visiting ACT’s website at http://www.artcentretheatre.com/onstage.html. You can also reserve a seat by contacting the theater’s box office at 214-810-3228. Visit ACT at 5220 Village Creek Dr., Plano, Texas 75093.