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This ‘Cats’ Adaptation Has the Kids Singing

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RICHARDSON, Texas — Heather Biddle, the theater director at J.J. Pearce High School here, desired to placed on a production of “Cats” for thus long it became something of a comedy bit.

Back in August 2020, following months of the pandemic shutdown and facing a yr of distant learning, her students made commemorative T-shirts that read “A minimum of we didn’t do ‘Cats.’”

That every one modified this month, when Biddle finally got her wish.

She staged considered one of the country’s first productions of “Cats: Young Actors Edition,” a one-hour version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit 1981 musical, adapted by iTheatrics for Concord Theatricals, and released to colleges across North America last fall. And as Biddle had expected, her students — lots of whom mostly knew the show within the context of its ill-fated 2019 cinematic adaptation — got here around to it.

“I text Biddle on a regular basis, ‘I’m not a ‘Cats’ hater!’” Ainsley Ross, a senior and the production’s musical director, said during a break from rehearsals on May 10. “Now that I’m working on it, I like it a lot.”

At a dress rehearsal inside the college’s auditorium three days before the show opened, the nervous energy was palpable. Dozens of teenagers ran about in scruffy bodysuits that had been hand painted by fellow students and Biddle.

Spencer Van Goor, a sophomore who played Rum Tum Tugger, purred “Hello, gorgeous” to a teased out wig as he picked it up off the stage and put it on his head. “I’ve wanted to do that show for nine years now,” the 15-year-old said. “I actually just like the dance and the music; it’s exotic and bizarre.”

Amelia Pinney, a junior who not only took on the dance-heavy role of Bombalurina but additionally choreographed the whole show, moved in tandem with Isabella Denissen, a junior who played Demeter. They were as attached on the hip as their two characters can be throughout the show.

“It’s mesmerizing. It’s so different from another show that’s been done,” Pinney said wistfully.

Within the greenroom, students paced excitedly as they waited to get made up as cats. “You seem like a sleep paralysis demon,” one actor told one other, which got fun from the larger group. The scholars practiced their dance moves, twirling their hands, spinning their bodies, and kicking up pointed toes. They manically discussed their other favorite musicals. All of them agreed that Hailey Gibson, a sophomore solid as Grizabella, was going to blow everyone away together with her rendition of “Memory.”

Concord Theatricals, the licensing house that represents the stage licensing rights to the Andrew Lloyd Webber catalog in North America, has long made 60-minute, kid-friendly versions of other stage works in its collection, similar to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” and Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” which J.J. Pearce students performed last fall.

“These editions do a whole lot of performances a yr; they’re a gateway to theater,” said Imogen Lloyd Webber, a daughter of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Concord’s senior vp of communications.

When the corporate decided to adapt Lloyd Webber’s work for younger performers and audiences, “Cats” was an obvious first selection. “It’s an ensemble show,” Imogen Lloyd Webber said. “Everybody’s got a component. Everybody can do a number. You possibly can go mad with the costumes and the sets and the choreography.”

“And in the event you give it some thought, T.S. Eliot’s ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ was originally a children’s poem,” she said, referring to the playful collection of poetry that makes up many of the musical’s book. “It made sense. Obviously, internally we’ve been calling it ‘Kittens’.”

Van Goor, who was considered one of 32 students to perform within the production (five others contributed technical support), also appreciated that “Cats” is a real ensemble. “Technically everyone gets their very own little feature,” he said. Though largely a plotless extravaganza, the musical is about in a junkyard where a gaggle of so-called Jellicle cats have gathered for an annual celebration.

“Cats: Young Actors Edition,” which is transposed in higher keys which might be higher fitted to younger voices, was made with middle-school performers in mind. But Biddle really wanted it for her high schoolers. Most of them have worked with Biddle since they were 12 or 13, participating in her popular all-ages school summer program.

The show was J.J. Pearce’s first production with none pandemic precautions, like limited seating, masked performers or a masked audience. Three days after the rehearsal, there was still a vibrant energy amongst the scholars at their 2 p.m. show on Friday, which had been arranged not just for the performers’ highschool classmates but additionally for local middle schoolers who were bused over after taking their annual standardized tests. Preteens and teenagers can have a popularity for not paying close attention at school-sponsored events, however the auditorium was silent when the descending riff of the musical’s opening number, “Prologue: Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” began.

Because the show went on, Biddle’s performers weren’t the one ones coming around to the thought of “Cats.” The audience seemed just as entranced by the musical, which is equal parts spooky, silly and nostalgic. Though some momentary loud shuffling occurred when the period bell rang, dozens of scholars remained rapt of their seats, cheering along to Van Goor’s provocative performance of “The Rum Tum Tugger” and when Pinney and others did back flips and handsprings onstage.

When the home lights rose after the performance, the highschool students who had been within the audience ran backstage to congratulate their friends.

And the performers? They were basking within the moment, thrilled that they’d pulled off the show. They’d done “Cats”! And they’d do it again that evening and the following day.

When asked if this production was every thing she hoped it could be, Biddle replied, and not using a moment’s hesitation: “I believe people were shocked at how much they loved the show. It was definitely worth the wait and I really like that we converted an entire latest group of ‘Cats’ lovers. ‘Cats’ now and eternally!”

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