Before landing the iconic role of Grizabella, star Elizabeth Stanley had never seen a production of "Cats."
"I feel ashamed that I had never seen it. It's something everyone knows about. People make jokes about it. It's such a part of our culture."
The Tony Award-winning musical is ingrained in our cultural lexicon, a symbol of the humorous over-the-top nature of musical theater and the power of a song like "Memory" to unite people from all walks of life. All this despite the play's distinctly unconventional structure.
Where: Pittsburgh CLO at Benedum Center, Downtown.
When: Friday through July 27. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday (2 p.m. only July 27).
Tickets: $35-$65.75. 412-456-6666 or pittsburghclo.org.
Unlike most theater productions, "Cats" is not based on a book or a real-life event but "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," a collections of poems by T.S. Eliot. A childhood favorite of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, "Practical Cats" was published in 1939. It is full of whimsical rhymes describing the life and times of a tribe of "Jellicle cats," who walk, talk, fight and love all under the moonlight.
There's the patriarch Old Deuteronomy. Other tribe members include Munkustrap, Jennyanydots Growltiger, Asparagus or "Gus" for short, and the disgruntled Rum Tum Tugger. Then, there's Grizabella, the dying and disheveled former beauty. And who can forget the fearsome Great Rumpus Cat with his flashing eyes.
"Cats" began at the New London Theatre in 1981 and played nearly 9,000 performances. The show made its Broadway debut in 1982 and today is the second longest-running show in Broadway history. "Cats" has received seven Tony Awards, including best musical and best costume design.
The piece is unique in its lack of plain-spoken dialogue; almost every line is set to music and choreography. The genre of the songs swing from high-energy pop to solemn hymns. Its plot is in many ways unclear. The actors constantly break the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly and, to top it all off, there are no scene changes.
"The piece is so avant-garde considering how mainstream it's become," says Ms. Stanley, who has previously performed with the CLO as Lucy in "Jekyll and Hyde," in addition to stints on Broadway in "Million Dollar Quartet," "Cry-Baby" and "Company." She is ready for the challenge of taking on Grizabella, if a little nervous about living up to people's past memories of "Memory."
"People have really specific ideas of what the role should be," she says, recalling her own childhood singing "Gus the Theater Cat" and playing the parts of both characters in the duet. "I have to erase all of that from my mind and do the best that I can, while also using the knowledge I have of what other people have done with the role to learn."
This production includes seasoned director and choreographer Richard Stafford, music director Tom Helm, and lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski. The show also stars Ken T. Prymus as Old Deuteronomy, a role he previously played for 71/2 years on Broadway. Michael Brian Dunn, who has appeared in a previous CLO production of "Cats," plays the roles of Gus and Growltiger.
Despite the challenges that the show presents for the cast and even for audiences who may be left searching for a more conventional storyline, it is that difficulty to define what exactly makes "Cats" work that keeps audiences coming back again and again.
"I have a feeling that it's a very personal experience for each individual," Ms. Stanley says. "It encourages you as an audience member to engage your creativity. It becomes what you want it to be or need it to be."
The spectacle of the show, from the makeup to the songs, is arguably unparalleled. It is a testament to the primal, tribal emotions that bind human and Jellicle cat alike.
"It's an iconic piece of theater within the past 50 years. It's a piece that's important in the landscape of theater," Ms. Stanley says. "It's just something you should see."