Musical Theater Heritage Brings “Cats” Up to Scratch in New Production

Actor Tim Scott’s Scuffed-Up, Punky Take on the Show Will Be Performed in June

You can detect a tone of defiant pride when Tim Scott tells you he has never seen “Cats.”

“Not once,” he said. “And I think that’s why I’m perfectly suited to direct it.”

That Scott somehow made it this far in life without actually sitting through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show (that at one time held the record for the longest-running musical in both London and New York), might strike you as odd. After all, Scott is a veteran theater guy — actor, singer, director, producer — with formidable vocal gifts when it comes to musicals.

Still, there was something about Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of “Old Possum’s Practical Book of Cats” by poet T.S. Eliot that just rubbed Scott the wrong way. It had to do with the distinctive makeup and costume designs of the original show, which tried to make the actors look like — well, big cats. (The first Broadway production reportedly used 3,000 pounds of yak hair for wigs.)

“I don’t have any interest in doing that or approaching that or trying to do that at all,” said Scott, an associate producer with Musical Theater Heritage, a not-for-profit company that operates three performance venues on the third floor of Crown Center. That’s where Scott’s scuffed-up, punky take on the show will be performed in June.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-hit opened in 1981 in London’s West End, where it ran 21 years. In 1982 the Broadway version opened at the Winter Garden Theatre, where it ran 18 years. It was greeted courteously, if a bit skeptically, by most critics. Depicting the gathering of the Jellicle tribe of cats (from Eliot’s poem) in a junkyard at night, the show produced a monster hit song — “Memory,” taken from an unfinished poem by Eliot and another he deemed too dark to include in a book aimed at young readers. “Memory” is sung by the aging Grizabella as she rides an old tire from the junkyard up to a version of heaven in the final minutes. At least that’s how it was done on Broadway. But Scott couldn’t care less.

“It’s really a play made up of a bunch of short stories without a through-line, so they decided, ‘Well, let’s dress up people like cats and make it entertaining as hell,’” Scott said. “You know the poetry by T.S. Eliot and we know the songs. So I think it lends itself to and deserves a reimagining.”

Scott said the show calls for a cast of 26 but he’ll do it with 13 actor/dancers, including Emily Shackelford, seen most often in recent years at Kansas City Rep (“Man in Love,” “Between the Lines”), Elise Poehling (“Milking Christmas” and “The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe” at the Living Room) and the imposing Ron Lackey, seen often at the Coterie and other theaters, as the patriarchal Old Deuteronomy.

“I don’t want it to look crowded,” he said. “We’re going to approximate what (director) Eric Rosen did with “Evita” (at Kansas City Repertory Theatre). We want to create an ensemble piece where actors can move in and out. We’re not trying to convince the audience that these people are cats. We have no interest in that.”

The rights-holders provided a small-orchestra score but Scott said he and musical director Jeremy Watson plan to make it even leaner.

“We’re scrubbing away all of that ’80s sound,” Scott said. “We’ve got the 11-piece orchestration but we’re not doing it with 11 pieces. We’re doing away with the electric keyboard . . . I don’t need someone to play the French horn part in the book. Jeremy’s going to play it all on piano.

Scott has tapped Georgianna Londre Buchanan to design the costumes, which he hopes will look like “normal” clothes but consistent with a junkyard.

“I want them to be highly curated and evocative. I said, ‘Let’s get some black tutus and some thigh boots and some fingerless gloves.’”

Scott invited Kenny Personett, who operates his Empire Dance Academy in one of the MTH venues, to choreograph the show. Scott said he urged Personett to incorporate hip-hop and other non-Broadway dance aesthetics.

MTH found a niche in its early years by performing concert versions of popular Broadway shows — meaning they weren’t fully staged and the actors stood at microphones and stared into the audience as they performed. Sometimes the approach worked, yielding evocative productions of “Big River” and an all-female version of “1776” among others. But “Cats” will not be a concert version. There will be no actors standing at stationary microphones attached to music stands.

“We made a conscious decision based on feedback from the audience,” said executive director Chad Gerlt. “Some people really liked that format and some people didn’t. It was time to present these shows in a different way. We’ve always had to struggle with that theater down there because we don’t have any fly space (which would allow suspended scenery) and we’re always going to be faced with the challenge of playing to the audience on three sides.”

The theater can seat 89 viewers in the center section and 77 on each side of the stage. By allowing actors more mobility with body mics, all viewers should have a better experience.

“It’s been our goal to make those side seats feel a little bit more love,” Gerlt said. “Our center-seat subscribers renew like crazy but our side-seat people aren’t renewing as much.”

Musical Theatre Heritage, now in its 16th year, operates on a budget of $1.2 million. In addition to producing its own shows, including the popular Musical Mondays and Tuesdays concerts, the company leases the theater to other groups and hosts youth camps. Last year, Gerlt said, the venue attracted 34,000 visitors.

It all began when MTH founder George Harter, who for years hosted a popular radio show, “A Night on the Town,” decided to do a concert version of the classic Bernstein/Comden/Green musical “On the Town” at the Belger Arts Center.

“We didn’t get any licensing or rights to do it,” Gerlt said. “It was totally illegal. George invited his radio listeners down there and about 150 people showed up.”

The point of staging vintage musicals goes far beyond nostalgia, according to Gerlt. Seeing a classic show reminds us that musical theater is an art form to be taken seriously.

“Sometimes you can hear a song on the radio,” Gerlt said. “Take a song like ‘Memory’ from ‘Cats.’ By itself, it’s a nice song. But in the show, it has a huge impact. Until you see it in the context of the show, where you see that it’s Grizabella who sings it and you see that she’s had a tough life, it brings the song to a whole other level and it just hits you in the gut.”

“Cats” runs June 7 – 24 at Musical Theater Heritage at Crown Center. For more information on tickets, 816-221-6987 or www.mthkc.com.

Above: “Cats” director Tim Scott (top row center), surrounded by the cast of Musical Theater Heritage’s upcoming production of the wildly popular musical. The performers (clockwise from top left) are Morgan Walker, Elizabeth Reese, Ron Lackey, Elise Poehling, Darrington Clark, Emily Shackelford and Taylor Avazpour. Photo by Jim Barcus.

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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