Now that the Furries have left town, flexible felines can take center stage in the Pittsburgh CLO’s production of “Cats.”
And for Lily Emilia Smith, playing the roles of Jellylorum and Griddlebone is a special thrill because this is her first appearance at the Benedum. It’s also her first time performing in this enduringly popular musical that is based on T.S. Eliot’s imaginative poetry, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” and has attracted a large contingent of devoted followers.
“I love it. It’s a classic piece of theater. I wasn‘t as familiar with it as other people are. It’s been awesome to get to know it,” the 22-year-old Mt. Lebanon resident said in a telephone interview.
She also loves the fact that Richard Stafford, the show’s director, played the role of Skimbleshanks on Broadway.
But she has some cat credentials, too. Tucker, a whopping 15-pounder, is her family’s orange striped tabby who loves to sit at the dinner table, sharing the chair of her youngest brother, Eli.
“He sits very upright and proper, as if he is the lord of the manor,” she said.
Fiona is a beautiful, sleek gray cat with big green eyes who can be a little skittish, but she loves Eli and “wakes him up every morning like a mommy cat.”
A 2014 graduate of Syracuse University, where she earned a bachelor of fine arts in musical theater, Ms. Smith spent the final semester of her senior year studying acting, dancing and singing with a whole new faculty in New York City. Along with her classmates, she stayed at the Trump Hotel on Riverside Boulevard.
“It was pretty swanky,” she said.
In her role as the motherly, protective Jellylorum, Ms. Smith sings a song about how fabulous Gus, the old theater cat, was in his heyday. She also plays Griddlebone, who sings the tune, “Growl Tiger‘s Last Stand.”
Ms. Smith began taking singing lessons when she was in third grade. One of her favorite role models is Kelli O’Hara, who starred as Nellie Forbush in the successful revival of “South Pacific.”
The same year she began singing lessons, she performed in a production of “Leader of the Pack” at the Center for Theater Arts in Mt. Lebanon.
“I loved doing it. I did shows from third grade on,” she said, adding that while she was a student in Mt. Lebanon’s public schools, she performed in “Hello, Dolly,” “Les Miserables,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” She also appeared in four plays — “The Crucible,” “Flowers for Algernon,” “The Somewhat True Tale of Robin Hood” and “Auntie Mame.”
While a student at Syracuse, she discovered that she likes being a “swing,” which requires a performer to learn several dancing or chorus roles.
The first time Ms. Smith was a swing was in “Quilters,” a musical about the struggles of pioneer women who recount their struggles in life while quilting.
“A professional swing gets rehearsal. I didn’t have any rehearsals,” she said, adding that all the women in the show play different characters and have monologues.
“That was tough. You never leave the stage, much like ‘Cats,’ so you have no time to recuperate,” she said.
During the first semester of her junior year, her family traveled to Syracuse so she would not spend the Christmas holiday alone.
“There was a huge snow storm,” Ms. Smith said, adding that she was performing in a production of “White Christmas.”
On the night that her family watched her perform in that show, she said, “I had to cover for two people. The dance captain had a rehearsal for the show. It was a really valuable experience.”
The experience of being a swing, she said, gives her an adrenaline surge.
“Your senses are heightened on stage. You become more aware. You are trying to communicate with everyone on stage.”
Does she feel a bit more pressure knowing that Jellylorum was the name of a cat T.S. Eliot had?
“I wouldn’t say that it is more pressure, but the goal is to try and find the essence of the character, real or imagined. T.S. Eliot created this incredible world, and it is our job to make the characters live through his words.”
Soon after “Cats,” ends, she‘ll travel to New York City for rehearsals of a touring production of “Annie” presented by Troika Entertainment. She will be in the ensemble and also be an understudy for the role of Grace, an assistant to Daddy Warbucks.
“It was always one of my goals to get a tour. It’s a good time to travel and see the country,” she said.
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1648.