Inlander: Huge in reputation and production value, Cats comes to the Civic in a collaborative, education-driven way

Nicole Ostlie as Sillabub in the Civic’s production of Cats.

Cats was an unlikely theatrical phenomenon. The musical’s primary source material is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a collection of quirky children’s poems by T.S. Eliot, the same literary figure who gave us ominous and melancholic works like The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It indulges in a mythology entirely of Eliot’s imagining, complete with invented concepts like the ‘Heaviside Layer’ and the ‘Jellicle Ball.’

And because his Book of Practical Cats is a series of feline portraits in verse, the structure of the show is more akin to traditional ballet than modern Broadway.

Nevertheless, a bona fide phenomenon it became. After Cats debuted in 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s creation launched the era of the megamusical — a category of production so sensational that it shapes popular culture and draws audiences like tourists to a famous landmark. With all that cachet, not to mention its extended dance numbers, oversized junkyard set pieces and renowned songs like “Memory,” Cats isn’t a show to be undertaken lightly.

Jake Schaefer, the Spokane Civic Theatre’s executive director, was under no illusions otherwise when the musical was selected as the community theater’s 76th season finale.

“A lot of things have been building to this. As one of the first nonprofessional companies in the world to do Jersey Boys, and after the season where we did the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we were looking at this season to fill in blanks. What haven’t we done? What do we need to do? So we worked really hard to get the rights for this show,” Schaefer says.

“It’s big. It’s everything on a magnified scale. People in this show are doing flips and high kicks. And there’s fight sequences. And there’s special effects. We’ve got movers and strip lights and hazers and fog machines. I mean, it’s every trick in the book.”

So, while Cats might have opened at the Civic only last weekend, its cast members have been undergoing intensive dance instruction since January. Creative partnerships, planning and preparation started well before that. According to Schaefer, who’s also directing the show, the key to adapting the megamusical to the local stage has been education, something he sees as a natural implementation of the Civic’s mission.

“The point of everything should be about learning,” he says, citing the actors’ “catting” as an example. “Like, what is your posture when you’re leaning up against a 12-foot fridge as a cat? When there are this many people onstage in this configuration and what’s behind you is a 6-foot dryer, how do you work that?”

The importance of that learning process led Schaefer to look to the wider community. Peter Rossing — a name more closely associated locally with WestCoast Entertainment, the company behind the STCU Best of Broadway series — was tapped to handle scenic design for his very first time in Spokane. And given that Gillian Lynne’s original choreography defines Cats as much as its distinctive set, costumes and music, Schaefer began collaborating with Suzanne Ostersmith of Gonzaga University’s dance program early on.

He also reached out to a former student of Ostersmith’s, Bonni Dichone, to choreograph the show. Dichone has an extensive dance background and previously performed in a Coeur d’Alene Summer Theater production of Cats.

“It is a physically demanding show,” she says, “even for a trained dancer who dances all day, every day. You enter the stage in the first number, and you do not leave for any reason until intermission. It’s not like, say, Hello Dolly or The King and I, where you go offstage and you sit for three numbers and then you come back.”

And yet newcomers like Julia Pyke gladly embraced the show’s various challenges.

“I feel like that’s kind of the way I roll. Just go for it, and figure out the details later,” she laughs. “I’ve kind of always regretted not doing theater when I was in high school. So when I saw that Civic was doing Cats, I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to just try out and see what happens.”

Civic regular Jean Hardie as Old Deuteronomy.

Spokane Symphony audiences might recognize Pyke as the orchestra’s principal flute player, but her presence on the Civic stage — or any theatrical stage, for that matter — is a first. On top of that, she’s playing a central figure, Grizabella, a mangy and ostracized cat whose glamorous youth is well behind her. Grizabella longs to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, the feline version of heaven, and be reborn. The song “Memory” is her plea to the other cats to accept her.

“Diving into the character has been really illuminating,” Pyke says. “As an orchestral musician, you have to do that when you’re performing, of course. You have to convey a character [and] tell a story through your playing and your body language. But this definitely takes it to a whole new level where I don’t have my flute to hide behind, so to speak.”

To balance some of the demands and stimulate peer learning, Dichone brought classically trained dancers like Emma Hedberg (playing Cassandra), Clio Tzetos (Victoria) and Sydney Zinnecker (Coricopat) to perform alongside Pyke and other cast members.

“We’ve got some really amazing, top-notch, top-tier dancers from the Gonzaga program in our production,” Dichone says, plus “a lot of people who have never trained in dance, who are doing moves and choreography that even trained dancers would struggle with. But they’ve really thrown themselves in with so much abandon and passion and, in a way, great innocence and naivety that it just somehow works. I think it will really blow people’s minds, quite honestly.”

“To redo the iconic choreography of Cats would be like repainting a Picasso,” says Schaefer, explaining why he and Dichone chose to stick closely to Lynne’s varied and intricate movements. However, he and Rossing have opted for a more “active” set — one where “everything comes up and down and moves and opens and closes” — that departs from big-budget productions but better suits the Civic’s stage and resources.

“There’s no corner cutting here. It’s all systems go. Our production is [just] a little bit more approachable because you know these people. The national tour or whatever, it’s just these professional actors in spandex and leg warmers. But when a community theater does it, that’s part of the reason why it’s so great. These are our people.”

This, he adds, is “Spokane’s Cats.” ♦

Cats • Through June 16; Wed-Sat at 7:30 pm, Sun at 2 pm • $40 • Spokane Civic Theatre • 1020 N. Howard St. •


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Article by EJ Iannelli

Photos by Ryan Wasson