Entertainment » Theatre

Less is more :: a scaled-down, smashing ’Cats’ takes Chicago

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Jan 6, 2011

In the thirty years that have passed since the Andrew Lloyd-Webber-penned, T.S. Eliot-inspired musical Cats first opened on the West End in New York City, the show has developed a reputation of kitsch and, in the eyes of some critics, the show's nine lives are long-gone "memories."

But don't tell that to Brenda Didier, who is at the helm, as both director and choreographer, of a unique relaunch of the Broadway classic. Didier's new vision of the feline frenzy, applauded by the Sun-Times as "spectacular and eye-opening," has been Jeff-nominated and recently extended through Feb. 20 at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre.

The tiny 60-seat theater, which plays host to the cast's every pounce and growl, has earned a unique reputation of its own in the Chicago theater scene, putting a city spin on dinner-theater and also earning recent Jeff nods for Didier-choreographed productions of Evita and Chess. The small space, it seems, provides the perfect antidote for a show typically conceived in larger theaters and helps to breathe a fresh energy into the frenetic, furry production.

Didier, who is also the founder and artistic director of the Lincolnshire Academy of Dance, recently spoke with EDGE over the phone from her Kenosha, Wis., home on what inspired her to revive the show for Chicago audiences.

Loathe it or love it

EDGE: Hi Brenda! You’ve stepped up to both choreograph and direct this production of Cats. What inspired you to take on this production?

Brenda Didier: [Theo Ubique artistic director] Fred Anzevino pitched the show to me in the spring of last year and I looked at him like, "What!?" But then I said, we’ve done Evita in that space, so why not Cats? It makes sense, for this show, to have a director-choreographer because it’s all music and dance, so it lends itself to that. I knew the show could fail and I could fall flat on my face, because it’s a hard show to do anyway, because there’s no book and a lot of people loathe Cats, but then you also get the people who love it. I knew they’d either love it or hate it, so I thought we’d do the best we could in our take on it.

EDGE: The show does have this reputation as being pretty cheesy, so tell me what you thought was missing from previous productions of it that you’ve tried to bring to this show?

BD: I think when I first saw Cats back in the ’80s, what I got from it was that it was so much of a spectacle but that it was low on heart. Dancers love the show. My husband went to the show and didn’t understand what was going. When I read the poem’s again from T.S. Eliot, and Andrew Lloyd-Webber talks about reading them as a child, I thought, let’s pull the storytelling, lyrics and the poems really forward. We added a human character to the beginning - a child - as a bit of a spin on the Nutcracker. Through her eyes, this world comes to life and I think it touches people when they see the show. From there, once you’ve grabbed them, you’ve got them.

The intimacy of the space is telling -- because the audience is right there and there’s no way around that. You can’t check out of the show when we do it this way and that’s the beauty of it. I think getting back to the book and adding that new character has helped really shape the show.

EDGE: Given your original apprehension regarding the show - and the risk you took by adding the human character - were you pretty nervous heading into the show’s opening? Did you get any sleep?

BD: I actually got a lot of sleep, because we had the three previews prior to the opening and they went so unbelievably great that we knew we were ready for a hit. I just didn’t want anybody to get hurt -- it’s a young cast and I didn’t want anyone to overdo it. You never know what could go wrong. But it was great. I was actually more nervous with Chess and Evita, because this cast was really ready to go.

A very physical show

EDGE: Tell me about your cast for the show -- what were you looking for in filling this show’s roster out?

BD: We have Maggie Portman, who’s won the Jeff Awards for both of her roles in Evita and Chess. She’s in her young 30s and is our dance captain, and having her in the show rounds out that young cast. She’s like a Broadway veteran here, and such a triple threat. She really pulls the performance level up, since so many of the cast are still in college, just graduated and are less seasoned performers. The cast grows before my eyes every week.

In a show like this, there’s no time to think. You’re always on stage running around and there’s so much going on that it’s a real sink or swim experience. I knew I needed a young cast because it’s a very physical show -- even their 20-year-old knees are aching! And then you have, as Old Deuteronomy, Matt McNabb, a seasoned actor who doesn’t have to dance as much and he’s such a great actor and singer. The veterans really lead the way and serve as examples to the rest of the cast.

EDGE: Tell me a bit more about the role that the show’s intimate setting plays in this production. Did that present a challenge for your choreography?

BD: The beauty of it was that I know the space now, I know where the big movement and small movement should take place. I think if I had never worked in that space it would be a nightmare, but I kind of figured it out in doing Evita. After reading the script, I knew we only really needed a cast of 13 -- some members double up and do a complete costume and wig change, coming back as a new character to look at, so we really trimmed what we didn’t need -- the excess. From there, it all really kind of fell into place.

EDGE: What is about the Theo Ubique theater’s approach to the craft that has appealed to you across these three productions? It fills a pretty unique role in Chicago theater.

BD: I first saw Cabaret there. I went to support my friends and loved the environment. The audience becomes a part of the action. Fred had heard of me and it all got started through that. I thought it would be really interesting and it intrigued me from day one. In my performing carer, I had worked in dinner theaters before and knew the idea was really fun -- you could talk to the patrons before and at intermission to get to know them on a personal level. Your patrons almost take ownership over you and know which part you play, which adds another dimension to the experience as a performer.

EDGE: When did you realize you had a hit on your hands with the show?

BD: I had a really deep down feeling when we had our first stumble-through and was watching it all come together. The show really grabs you and doesn’t let you go. I remember when I first saw the show, I remembered Grizzabella and some of the other cats, but I didn’t remember them all. With this show, you get to know them all and resonate with them. I was really confident going into the show and have never been so confident heading into a press night, but the energy in the room from the start was electric. The show really is charming and beautiful.

Cats plays the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave., with shows Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. through February 20, 2010 Visit www.theoubique.com for tickets and more information.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


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