'Cats' gets another life in Toronto, 28 years after original production
The cast of "Cats" is shown in a handout photo. The latest Dave Campbell-directed incarnation of "Cats" began previews May 28 at Toronto's Panasonic Theatre and opens June 11 with an all-Canadian cast choreographed by Gino Berti. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Rachael McCaig
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, June 9, 2013 11:37AM EDT
TORONTO -- Toronto theatre producer Marlene Smith didn't think the cats would ever come back.
"Never, never," Smith, who produced the original Canadian production of the enduring musical "Cats" 28 years ago and is doing so again in Toronto, said in a recent interview.
"I was surprised I was there the first time," she added with a chuckle.
"I couldn't believe it then and I can't believe I'm doing it again," echoed cast member Susan Cuthbert, who was also in the original production that opened at Toronto's Elgin Theatre in 1985.
But as the saying goes, cats have nine lives, and the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage show with the moving song "Memory" and a tribe of singing and dancing kitties called the Jellicles is certainly proof of that.
The latest Dave Campbell-directed incarnation began previews May 28 at Toronto's Panasonic Theatre and opens June 11 with an all-Canadian cast choreographed by Gino Berti.
Berti was also part of the first Canadian production, joining the show after it had run at the Elgin, toured the country and arrived at Massey Hall for a seven-month run in '89.
"It changed all of our lives," said Berti, who played Coricopat, twin to Tantomile. "It was the first mega-musical Canada ever had, and a long-running musical, so it was wonderful just as a dancer, as an actor. It was a dream.
"There were times when I was onstage dancing the (Jellicle) Ball, which is the big dance number, and I was just like, 'It doesn't get better than this."'
Based on "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" by T. S. Eliot, "Cats" follows an amusing array of whisker-faced figures as they come together to decide which one will go to a heavenly place called the Heaviside Layer and get a new life.
It debuted in London in '81 and ran for 21 years. In '82, it opened on Broadway and ran for 18 years.
The original Canadian production ran for about five years, including the Canadian tour and Massey Hall run.
"Apparently it changed the whole phenomena of musical theatre in Toronto," said Smith, who is collaborating with son Geoffrey of Nu Musical Theatricals on the latest version.
"I guess one of the biggest things about it was that they had never -- 'they' being New York -- had never licensed a show while it was playing on Broadway, because they were always concerned that it would take away their tourism."
The Canadian production also employed a lot of young theatre talent and gave a boost to tourism at a time when "not a lot of theatre companies did musicals," she added.
The first time Smith heard about the show, she was in a store and an employee was raving about having seen it in New York.
"I thought, 'Oh my heavens, what is that?' and I kind of fluffed it off," she recalled.
But after catching it on Broadway herself, Smith was determined to bring it north of the border.
The Ministry of Tourism and Culture owns and operates the Elgin theatre and Smith was worried then-minister Susan Fish wouldn't approve the site for use.
"What I didn't know was that she had seen it twice already in New York and loved the show," said Smith.
The show-stopper is the redemption-themed tune "Memory," sung by key character Grizabella, portrayed in this latest incarnation by Ma-Anne Dionisio.
"It's the heart of (the story) in that song, and the way Ma-Anne sings it, every time it makes me cry," said Cuthbert, who plays Jennyanydots/Griddlebone/Jellylorum -- characters she also played back in original production.
Also key to the show, of course, are the cat-like movements.
Berti, who is remounting Gillian Lynne's original Broadway choreography with only slight changes, said it's a "very physical" show as cast members have to be feline-like at all times -- not to mention the Jellicle Ball dance number clocks in around 18 minutes long.
"One of the reasons I didn't think I'd come back to this is, quite frankly, the physicality of it," said Cuthbert.
The original production was particularly taxing because it ran about an hour longer than the current version and was on a stage that was slanted forward.
Berti said understudies were on "constantly."
"I think in the two and a half years that I did it, the only time the full company was onstage was opening night and closing night."
Smith recalls cast members being wheeled on a stretcher through the stage door in full cat makeup to St. Michael's hospital across the street.
"Of course it caused quite a sensation in emergency," she said with a laugh.
There was a benefit to the rigours of the roles, though.
"My body looked fantastic," enthused Berti. "Bruised up but man, did it look good. You could eat burgers any time you wanted to."
Berti said the cast in the new production are mostly young, strong and handling the physicality well.
"Three quarters of the cast weren't even alive when I did it, so it's a whole new generation that's going to come," he said excitedly.
For Cuthbert, that means her daughter will finally get to see her in it.
"My daughter never saw this show. Of course, she wasn't born yet and it's kind of fun to have her come," she said. "She's coming opening night with her boyfriend and I am thrilled for that."