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Young actors take on 'CATS'

By Hannah Scott

Published 11:21 PDT, Fri July 29, 2022

Last Updated: 4:24 PDT, Fri July 29, 2022

CATS is a beloved musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, inspired by a book of poems by T. S. Eliot.

The Children’s Theatre of Richmond is presenting an abridged one-hour version of the show, adapted for young actors, through Aug. 7. The cast is made up of 24 actors aged nine to 18.

“It’s a nice opportunity to let everybody have a chance to shine,” says director and co-producer Mark Carter. “Some kids have never been on stage before, some are not the strongest singers but maybe they’re stronger as a dancer—there’s room to be flexible with some of these roles, and we can have some of these characters stay on stage for (most of the show) and be highlighted even though they’re a little bit out of their comfort zone.”

While the show is shortened, Carter says all the best-known songs are still included. Most of the cuts involve extended dance numbers from the original musical.

Despite the actors’ young age, there’s a deliberate effort to treat them like adults.

“I think when you challenge young performers, they step up to the plate. That’s certainly been the case with this show,” says Carter. “The biggest trick is sometimes stepping back and letting them find their own comfort level. But they’re very energetic and they bring a lot to the room, and they’re really good at picking things up very quickly as well.”

Bringing a cast together after several years of pandemic challenges has meant cast members rehearsing in masks and doing weekly COVID tests.

“Although we can’t really understudy roles because we don’t have enough people to go around, we’ve doubled up songs so if somebody does (get sick), somebody else could sing their song for them,” says Carter. “All the kids, on top of their own (role), are learning other songs so that, just in case somebody has to be away, they’re able to sing the songs so we can still tell the story. They’ve all had to do a little bit of extra work that way, (but) you tell any performer they have to learn an extra song and they get excited about that.”

Performances will be in the PAL Studio Theatre in downtown Vancouver, which seats 97 people. The creative team has embraced the challenge of a small space and made the performance more intimate with characters just two or three feet away at times.

“You feel like you’re immersed in this world because it’s all around you,” says Carter. “You usually see (CATS) on such a grand scale, on a big stage far away, and this one’s a lot more up close and personal—so I think that’s what makes ours unique.”

For the young actors, putting the elaborate costumes and makeup on has been a transformative experience. Their movements immediately changed as they adopted cat-like personas. But with a team of seven makeup artists taking 30 to 45 minutes per actor, it’s also a time-consuming process.

“I just couldn’t get over when these kids came out in their full costumes and were running and jumping around,” says Carter. “(We) noticed little things like facial expressions, and how they presented themselves when they were in costume and makeup was much stronger."

He credits choreographer Ken Overbey and musical director Jeremy Hoffman for their hard work, given the fact that CATS is a sung-through musical with very little dialogue. 

The most important part, Carter says, is to ensure all the performers are having fun. That’s the feeling that will translate to audiences. 

“Some people will be really quite impressed with what these kids have done in three weeks (of rehearsal),” says Carter. “They’ve stepped up and worked really hard, as I would expect any adult performer to do. They’re working hard, they’ve got smiles and are having fun and enjoying themselves—to me that’s always the most important part, whether they’re nine or 90.”

Richmondite Claire Torrance is performing the role of Grizabella the Glamour Cat, who sings Memory, perhaps the musical’s best-known song.

“I'm a very musical person and I've been doing acting and theatre since a very young age,” says Torrance. “As I've grown, I've become more and more passionate about musical theatre in every way. I love being able to work with others that share that same joy and passion. Seeing how all of our hard—but let's face it, very fun—work pays off is the pinnacle of it all. Sharing that joy and love for musical theatre amongst a cast, crew, and audience affects me in a way that no other thing can, so I love it very much.”

She describes her character as “an old, dying cat who is being shunned by the other Jellicle cats. In her past she was a ‘glamour cat,’ meaning she was probably once a beautiful cat but fell on some hard times and now she just wants to be accepted by the other cats as a Jellicle cat again.”

Torrance adds that performers are from all across Greater Vancouver, and as far away as Toronto. She highlights the handmade set and high-quality costumes as standout elements.

“Audiences can expect to see a heartfelt peek into the world of cats and the drama within their lives,” she says.

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