This "Cats" adaptation makes children sing

Heather Biddle, theater director at JJ Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas, had wanted to put on a production of “Cats” for so long ...


Heather Biddle, theater director at JJ Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas, had wanted to put on a production of “Cats” for so long that it became something of a comedy.

In August 2020, after months of pandemic shutdown and facing a year of remote learning, her students made commemorative T-shirts that read ‘At least we didn’t do any’ cats'”.

Everything changed this month, when Biddle finally got his wish.

She staged one of the first productions in the country of “Cats: Young Actors Edition”, an hour-long version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 hit musical, adapted by iTheatrics for Concord Theatricals and released to schools across North America last fall. And as Biddle expected, his students — many of whom were mostly familiar with the series from the context of its ill-fated 2019 film adaptation — came to it.

“I text Biddle all the time, ‘I don’t hate ‘Cats’ anymore!”, said Ainsley Ross, senior production musical director, during a break between rehearsals on May 10. “Now that I’m working on it, I love it so much.

At a dress rehearsal in the school auditorium three days before the show opened, the nervous energy was palpable. Dozens of teenagers ran around in scruffy overalls that had been hand-painted by fellow students and Biddle.

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

Amelia Pinney, a junior who not only took on the role of Bombalurina but also choreographed the entire show, moved in tandem with Isabella Denissen, a junior who played Demeter. They were as attached at the hip as their two characters would be throughout the series.

” It’s fascinating. It’s so unlike any other show that’s been done,” Pinney said wistfully.

In the green room, students were pacing enthusiastically as they waited to be made up as cats. “You look like a sleep-paralyzed demon,” one actor said to another, which had the whole group laughing. The students practiced their dance moves, twirling their hands, spinning their bodies and raising pointy toes. They chatted maniacally about their other favorite musicals. They all agreed that Hailey Gibson, a second cast as Grizabella, was going to blow everyone away with her rendition of “Memory.”

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

“These editions have hundreds of performances a year; they’re a gateway to the theater,” said Imogen Lloyd Webber, daughter of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Concord’s Senior Vice President of Communications.

When the company decided to adapt Lloyd Webber’s work for young performers and audiences, “Cats” was an obvious first choice. “It’s an ensemble show,” said Imogen Lloyd Webber. “Everyone has a role. Anyone can dial a number. You can go crazy with the costumes, sets and choreography.

“And if you think about it, TS 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 most of the musical comedy book. “It made sense. Obviously, internally, we call it “Kittens”.

Van Goor, who was one of 32 students to star in the production (five others contributed technical support), also liked that “Cats” was a proper ensemble. “Technically, each has its own little feature,” he said. Although largely a plotless extravaganza, the musical is set in a junkyard where a group of so-called Jellicle cats have gathered for an annual celebration.

“Cats: Young Actors Edition”, which is transposed into higher pitches better suited to younger voices, was designed for middle school performers. But Biddle really wanted it for his high school kids. Most of them have worked with Biddle since the age of 12 or 13, participating in its popular summer school program for all ages.

The show was JJ Pearce’s first production without any pandemic precautions, such as limited seating, masked performers or masked audiences. Three days after the rehearsal, there was still a vibrant energy among the students at their 2 p.m. show on Friday, which was organized not only for the performers’ classmates, but also for local college students who Bused after taking their annual standardized tests. Tweens and teens may have a reputation for not paying close attention to school-sponsored events, but the auditorium was silent as the descending riff from the musical’s opening number, “Prologue: Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” began.

As the show progressed, Biddle’s performers weren’t the only ones who came up with the idea for “Cats.” Audiences seemed equally enthralled by the musical, which is spooky, silly and sentimental all at once. Although a momentary shuffle occurred when the vintage bell rang, dozens of students remained elated in their seats, applauding Van Goor’s defiant performance of “The Rum Tum Tugger” and when Pinney and others did backflips and rollovers on stage.

When the house lights went up after the show, high school students who had been in the audience ran backstage to congratulate their friends.

And the performers? They bask in the moment, delighted to have succeeded in the show. They had done “Cats”! And they would do it again that night and the next day.

When asked if this production was all she hoped for, Biddle replied without hesitation, “I think people were shocked at how much they loved the show. It was worth the wait and I love that we converted a whole new group of “cat” lovers. ‘Cats’ now and forever!

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