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Ambitious TBT show is the cat's meow

June 14, 2012
By DIANE SPEER - News Lifestyles Editor , The Alpena News

I might as well state it right up front. This review of Thunder Bay Theatre's production of "Cats" will most likely be filled with superlatives.

Suffice it to say I've been doing these reviews a whole lot of years now (20-plus), and never before do I recall an opening night with such a palpable sense of excitement in the air. The place was jam packed with patrons, and the cast and crew delivered for them perhaps the most polished opener I've ever witnessed at TBT.

Simply put, the show was phenomenal.

Doing "Cats" on a small town stage definitely was an ambitious undertaking. The mega award-winning production, after all, ran for 18 straight years on Broadway and featured a huge cast, music by the stellar Andrew Lloyd Webber and unlimited resources to make it all very splashy.

TBT is a whole different ballgame from the bright lights of Broadway, but Artistic Director J.R. Rodriguez proved that with vision and know how, remarkable talent across the board and a great deal of hard work, anything is possible.

The cast of 24 was arrayed in hands-down the best costumes I've ever experienced at the theatre. Kendra McInerney, responsible for the design of the two dozen different cat creations, out-did herself.

Music Director Bunny Lyon had many superb voices with which to work, but she pulled an amazing, full sound out of the cast collectively as well as some very beautiful solos and duets.

The dance numbers, choreographed by Hannah Matzke, Lara Torres and Dodi Lance, all were extremely eye-catching and made really good use of the allotted space.

Derek Spack designed and Nickie Hilton painted the oversized junkyard set and other properties that in both form and function perfectly served the purpose. Spack also designed the lighting that added yet another important element to the overall production.

But it was the performers themselves who brought it all to life. As the name of the show implies, all 24 appeared on stage as cats. I'm not sure if being a cat lover makes a noticeable difference or not in how much a person enjoys the show, but I happen to be a big fan of felines. Seeing the way the different actors stretched, hissed, scratched, languished, purred and rubbed against one another even when they weren't actively engaged in a song or dance proved to be great fun.

The direction by Rodriguez ensured that there always was something or someone to watch on stage without ever giving the space a feel of being over-crowded. The pure entertainment factor was huge, even if the show doesn't have a totally recognizable, spelled-out-for-you storyline.

I don't really know how Webber and lyricist Trevor Nunn ever conjured up an entire musical out of a book of verse written by celebrated poet T.S. Eliot, but they obviously happened upon a winner.

The two-act show is about a tribe of cats, called the Jellicles, who gather once a year as one member of their tribe is chosen for the honor of being reincarnated. "Cats" showcases characters from all walks of life who are metaphors of people from different parts of society.

Those aspects aren't particularly obvious though, so the bottom line is, don't come expecting to necessarily understand everything that you see. Rather, just sit back and revel in the sensational spectacle of it all.

The most poignant song in the show undoubtedly has to be also the most well-known song, "Memories," sung in hauntingly beautiful fashion by Suni Travis as Grizabella, the former glamour cat who has lost her sparkle. Molly Striker, another sterling voice amongst a cast of solid voices, joins Travis for a reprisal of "Memories" later on in the show.

LeShawn Bell hams it up as Rum Tum Tugger, the flirtatious rock star-like cat who in Elvis Presley mode, is surrounded by his groupie cats.

Two sets of twin cats, played by Spack/McInerney and Dylan Goike/Mariah Purol, each give playful performances. Spack and McInerney do a great job on the song named after their respective characters, "Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer."

Bruce Michaud appears as the faltering Gus, an aged theatre cat and one of the oldest Jellicle tribe members. Caitlin Borke, another cast member with an outstanding voice, joins Michaud in song on the number, "Gus: The Theatre Cat."

The role of Old Deuteronomy, the distinguished and loveable patriarch cat, falls to David Usher. Both his carriage and his demeanor are fitting of a cat who is looked upon with reverence by the rest of the tribe.

Victoria, a pure white kitten, begins the "official" Jellicle Ball with her solo dance. Kirstin Bohlen, so graceful and so gifted at dance, was appropriately selected to play this part.

Zach Clement as the snappy "fat cat," Bustopher Jones; Mac Fountain as the railway cat, Skimbleshanks; Emily Szatkowski as Bombalurina; Nickie Hilton as Jennyanydots, who kicks off a fun and energetic tap number; Brian Heldt as Munkustrap; Hannah Matzke as Demeter and Hannah Irving as Mr. Mistoffelees, add their own special something to the show.

So too, do Riley McGuire as Macavity, Courtney Marshall as Electra, Sandi Schmidt as Ectcetera, Alexys Suisse as Pouncival, Sarah Swider as Cassandra and Nikita McCallum as Admetus.

TBT's opening night production featuring all of these highly enjoyable performers ended with a standing ovation and well it should have. I won't be surprised in the least if the show draws huge crowds every night of its four-week run.



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