'CATS' lands on local stage

"He would watch you without winking/And he saw what you were thinking/And it's certain that he didn't approve/Of hilarity and riot/So that folk were very quiet/When Skimble was about and on the move."

— "Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat"


Now in its 31st year, Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical "CATS" has seen more than its share of nine lives.

Performed across several continents, "CATS" got its start when Lloyd Webber picked up a copy of T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" in an airport bookshop. From that inauspicious beginning, the show has become one of the longest running musicals in history.

Far from a simple song-and-dance revue, "CATS" — based on Eliot's 1930s poetry about the lives, aspirations and names of the "Jellicle" cats humans see every day but don't really know — takes a witty, adroit tone, playing with literary and everyday history as it asks humans:

"Can you ride on a broomstick to places far distant?/Familiar with candle, with book and with bell?/Were you Whittington's friend? The Pied Piper's assistant?/Have you been an alumnus of heaven or hell?"

But one doesn't have to be a fan of British fairy tales to appreciate the show, coming to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts next week.

"It transcends language; I think a lot of people do end up getting it by the end," said cast member Louie Napoleon, who plays the fastidious cat Skimbleshanks. He said that multiple viewings can elicit new discoveries in the show, in which each "starring" cat is given a showcase to perform in hopes of going to the Heaviside Layer (named after an actual level of Earth's ionosphere) and being reborn. The cats range from pranksters to matrons to a former stage actor.

"I think the show is so diverse in its range of characters," Napoleon said. "Initially, when anyone sees the show, it's a little overwhelming at first. The characters are right there in your face, and they know that you're there; there's no fourth wall."

In fact, the performers are famous for "playing" with their audiences by look and gesture.

Napoleon's Skimbleshanks is an orange cat whose vocation is to travel the midnight mail train from London to Scotland, ensuring the safety and comfort of all the humans aboard.

"I think he's a character that's always stood out to me," Napoleon said. "He definitely has a lot of nice features in the show; he's fun-loving and energetic. After my first audition, when I was called back for Skimbleshanks, I didn't quite see myself in the role. But I actually share a lot of qualities with him. We're both precise; picky; very specific. And everything's exactly in its place. If it's a job worth doing, it's worth doing well."

Napoleon received his bachelor's of fine arts in musical theater from the University of Buffalo in 2009, he said, and soon embarked on a six-month tour in a new envisioning of the classic musical "Cabaret." Now living in New York, Napoleon ended up touring with "CATS" about a year ago, after being cast as Skimbleshanks.

"I actually didn't see the show live until I first joined the cast," Napoleon said. "I started dance pretty late in life. But I wore out the ["CATS"] DVD when I was younger."

Napoleon said the show also emphasizes the overall theme of acceptance, as very disparate cats come together to reaccept Grizabella, the past-her-prime diva who comes back to her tribe singing of a very potent "Memory."

"The audience sees that maybe they haven't been so accepting in the past," Napoleon said. "They realize that it's not that much different from real life."

On top of the demanding range of the songs, "CATS" performers are expected to be extremely lithe and nimble dancers; each works to make the metamorphosis into a cat every evening before opening curtain.

"It's a challenging show to do physically, with all the dancing, but also with the makeup and the costumes," Napoleon said. "We actually have an extended call before the show; unlike other shows, where we can show up maybe half an hour in advance, most of us show up two hours in advance for 'CATS.' It's quite a process to get ready, but it's also a huge part of the show."

Not originally geared toward children the way other Lloyd Webber productions like "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" were, "CATS" has nonetheless become an all-ages show.

"I always say that I love doing matinees more than evening shows, because there are so many kids there," Napoleon said. "You can almost see yourself in those kids, and you don't know if one of them is going to grow up and be in 'CATS' in the national tour."

Napoleon also emphasized the versatility and range of the songs composed by Lloyd Webber, saying there is something for everybody in the show. "If one song isn't really your gig, you'd better be sure that there will be one two minutes later that you'll love," he said.

Napoleon said he is excited to be a part of musical theater history, and added that he's a longtime fan of the "Evita" score and is familiar with all of Lloyd Webber's major works, emphasizing the composer's 1980s rise to superstardom.

"I couldn't be happier being in 'CATS,'" Napoleon said. "The music's great; it's historical in its own right. I think it's really cool to be a part of musical theater history."

Napoleon said he hoped audiences will remain open-minded to the show, and come to their seats without preconceived notions.

"It's so different from anything else that's out there," he said. "Let it encompass you completely; it really will have a lasting effect. There's a reason that the show is around after 30 years. People who saw it when they were younger now want to share it with their sons, daughters, granddaughters, grandsons; they want to pass down the legacy."

If You Go

What: "CATS"

When: Jan. 17 to 22

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

Cost: $20 and up

Information: scfta.org

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World