Many months ago, as Thunder Bay Theatre Artistic Director J.R. Rodriguez began shifting through scripts for the upcoming summer season, he knew he wanted a show with a wow factor.
"When the board and I started working on suggestions over a year ago, my first thought was what can be a spectacular show where when tourists start rolling into town in June, it's going to make them excited about coming to Thunder Bay Theatre," Rodriguez said.
His solution? Put on the award-winning, recording-breaking "Cats" as the opening show of the season.
News Photo by Diane Speer
Thunder Bay Theatre’s cast for “Cats” features Nickie Hilton, LeShawn Bell, Suni Travis, Zach Clement, Derek Spack, Kendra McInerney, Hanna Matzke, David Usher, Bruce Michaud, Emily Szatkowski, Mackenzie Fountain, Caitlin Borke, Molly Stricker, Dylan Goike, Mariah Purol, Riley McGuire, Courtney Marshall, Brian Heldt, Kirsten Bohlen, Hanna Irving, Sandi Schmidt, Alexys Suisse, Sarah Swider and Nikita McCallum.
With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show originally opened in 1981 in London and ran for 21 years. It opened on Broadway in 1982 and ran there for 18 years, making it the second longest running show in Broadway history, topped only by "Phantom of the Opera," another Webber musical.
The two-act show is about a tribe of cats, called the Jellicles, who gather once a year to choose a member of their tribe to be reincarnated. It showcases characters from all walks of life who are metaphors of characters from different parts of society. Their stories are told through the poetry of T.S. Eliot and their relationships are presented through choreography.
Bringing "Cats" to the TBT stage is a major undertaking for Rodriguez, but he has assembled a cast of 24 and a technical crew of nearly 20 to pull it off.
"I know it is something extremely difficult to produce, but I also know that the talent in this town is a lot better than they think they are," Rodriguez said.
Core company members appearing in the show include Nickie Hilton, LeShawn Bell, Suni Travis, Zach Clement, Derek Spack, Kendra McInerney and Hanna Matzke. They are joined on stage by local company members David Usher, Bruce Michaud, Emily Szatkowski and Mackenzie Fountain.
Several members of TBT's youth acting class also are featured in the production: Caitlin Borke, Molly Stricker, Dylan Goike, Mariah Purol, Riley McGuire and Courtney Marshall. Rounding out the cast are Brian Heldt, Kirsten Bohlen, Hanna Irving, Sandi Schmidt, Alexys Suisse, Sarah Swider and Nikita McCallum.
Usher, a veteran of both TBT and Alpena Civic Theatre, believes audiences are in for a real treat.
"Alpena's never seen anything like this is going to be," Usher said. "I've been on stage for 27 years and this is beyond anything I could have imagined."
Usher and others associated with the show also know there a few naysayers who believe that a production the magnitude of "Cats" can't be done on a local stage.
"The aura of a show that has been on Broadway for so many years is overwhelming," Usher said. "There are some who think it can't be done. We are doing it. We're really doing it."
Among the many challenges with "Cats" are the costumes. McInerney, along with appearing in the show, is serving as costume designer. Three fellow cast members Matzke, Suisse and Travis have been assisting her with the costume construction.
"I had everyone bring in a basic unitard, and I've been building on them with color, fur, make-up," McInerney said. "We've crocheted leg warmers and arm warmers for almost every costume, plus we're still doing the tails and shoulder fur."
Choreography has been another key element in preparing for next week's June 13 opening. Dodi Lance choreographed one number for the show and Lara Torres two other numbers, but the bulk of the choreography fell to Matzke. A long-time dancer at the 4D 2nd Street Dance Company as well as an instructor there, Matzke found working with the cast to be much easier than she anticipated.
"In the beginning, I thought it would be a lot harder than it is," she said. "The people I'm working with made it a lot easier. They are really easy to teach."
Rodriguez said Matzke has had her work cut out for her since "Cats" is a musical from start to finish, including the opening number which is 20 minutes in length. He said she has done a terrific job, as have Lance and Torres.
Spack, as technical director at TBT, has concerned himself with the set and lighting design along with his upcoming role in the show. The musical takes place in a junk yard, with platforms at stage left and stage right to give the set added interest and height. Hilton worked in tandem with Spack as the scenic painter. The core company helped to construct the set with assistance from Heldt and Fountain.
As in many shows past, Bunny Lyon is the music director, another key element. Although for previous musicals, TBT has relied on a three-piece band to provide the musical accompaniment, this time around they are using a music recording of the show's tunes.
"With a show like this, we have to fill the room with the music, which this will enable us to do," Rodriguez said.
All of those who have been working hard to get the show ready are excited to bring "Cats" to the TBT stage and they consider it a true collaborative effort. The show runs June 13 to July 7, with show times at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For reservations, call the TBT box office at 354-2267.