Cat fantastic: “CATS” premieres at Bama Theatre

Kyle Ashley, Contributing Writer

This weekend, the Actor’s Charitable Theatre is hosting the beloved musical “CATS.” Hosted at the historic Bama Theatre, the production contains four University of Alabama students and promises to be a spectacle.

Jellicle Cats are storming Tuscaloosa for this weekend only.

From Sept. 6-9, the Bama Theatre is hosting the Actor’s Charitable Theatre’s production of “CATS.” Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and originally premiering nearly 30 years ago, “CATS” is a musical beloved by many, and it still enjoys the fourth-longest run on broadway in history. Based on the poet T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” Webber’s “CATS” follows a group of jellicle cats who must decide which cat will get sent to the mysterious Heaviside Layer.

This particular production of “CATS,” directed by Joey Lay, should be of note for, if nothing else, the four students of the University of Alabama who were cast to play various roles in the show: Cole Cabiness, Autumn Fuller, Bethany Knight and Tara Richardson. Being a dance-heavy show, and combined with a two-hour runtime, “CATS” has a reputation for being rather demanding of its performers. The show is less of a leisurely stroll and more of a marathon, one commenced at breakneck speed.

“A big thing that I’ve learned is how to figure out when I’m pushing too hard and when to take it back,” said Fuller, who plays Rumpleteazer in the production. “My big number is about halfway through the second act, and once I get to it, I’m pretty winded. The biggest thing for me has been building endurance for the show. It’s a beast.”

In addition to concerns about conditioning, the acrobatic elements of “CATS” were also said to be quite a challenge during production.

“In my song I have to fly out at the beginning. I do not have a harness. I hold onto with my hand and there’s a place for my foot … That has been the hardest and scariest thing I’ve done.” Cole Cabiness said about his role as Mister Mistoffelees.

But whatever work the cast has put into the show has seemed to be paying off. In a short demo performed for various media members on Tuesday, dozens of bodies flew across the stage in quick and precise order. In what I was assured was a rough run (and being fair, there were some visible hiccups) it seemed that no part of the stage was off-limits. Cats (or people dressed as cats rather) popped out of trash cans, crawled out of pipes and climbed atop buildings. It was very quickly made self-evident that the physical, mental and logistical challenges of the production must be immense.

However, the harsh demands of the production provided an opportunity for the cast to bond.

“This is a very close cast,” Fuller said. “It’s a very small cast. I feel like a lot of us helped each other grow and got super close throughout this whole process.” 

The “CATS” cast’s modest size hasn’t prevented them from diversifying the talents in their ranks.

“We have so many people coming from so many different places that we are specializing in,” Richardson added.  “We have dancers, singers, actors and also people coming in and doing makeup and costumes. We also have people in the production working on the set and costumes … We’re all working as a team and pulling out the strengths in each other.”

One of these multitaskers was the aforementioned Bethany Knight, a sophomore at the University, who had played an integral role in costume design, painting all but a handful of the costumes seen on stage, in addition to her part as the cat Demeter. Costumes, she later noted, that were each unique in design and construction. 

And attention to detail was truly a consistent theme of the production, paying attention to the surroundings parts of the stage will promise to be rewarding.

“The interactions among the cats, even when we’re not the focus,” Cabiness identified as something a casual watcher might miss. “We have worked really hard on staying in character at all times and adopting the cat’s persona. Just keep an eye out, and you might catch some fun stuff going on in the outskirts, or in little nooks and crannies on the stage.”

But lastly, it should be noted that “CATS” is more than the costumes and choreography. It has a real emotional core.

“We’re cats, but we’re also human, and that’s kind of the point of the show is that it’s supposed to be a reflection of human society,” Knight said about the main takeaway of the show.

So while “CATS” may seem a little odd to an outsider looking in – mainly because it is, in fact very odd – “CATS” offers an experience that is unlike most others. It’s filled with intrigue, beautiful choreography, compelling characters, and last but not least, cats galore.

For those interested in seeing “CATS,” tickets can be bought through the Actor’s Charitable Theatre’s website. It shows five times at the Bama Theatre Friday through Sunday and promises to dazzle.