By Ron Leir
Kearny High School’s upcoming spring musical is certain to give you “paws,” if you’ll pardon the pun.
It’s “Cats,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about a tribe of cats known as the Jellicles that enjoyed a twodecade- long run on Broadway and a 21-year run in London.
The show, based on the poet T.S. Elliott’s book, “Old Possum’s Book of Cats,” has been translated into 20 different languages.
But this will mark the first time around for local audiences. “It’s something we’ve never done before here,” said director Brian Toal. “We thought it would mesh well with the talent we have available.”
For the past two months, Toal – who is also stage and vocal director – has been pushing his Kardinal cast of 30 through the show’s demanding paces. “It’s challenging musically since there’s music and dancing 90% of the way through,” he explained.
“Our kids leave here tired every night,” Toal said. “We’ve had to make up for time lost to snow days so they’ve been coming in Friday nights, weekends. I have to say, to their credit, this is the most energetic cast I’ve had.”
When these human felines start purring, so to speak, they’ll be accompanied by an eight-piece orchestra of professional musicians, including some former KHS students, under the baton of music director Ed Gargiulo.
Easily the best known tune from the musical is “Memory,” which 17-year-old senior Cassie Shea, as the outcast Grizabella, gets to sing.
It turns out that her character isn’t mentioned in “Old Possum’s Book of Cats” but, instead, appears as the four-legged version of the woman in another Elliott poem, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.)
Cassie, performing in her fifth and final KHS musical (she got her first shot on stage as an eighth-grader), has found her role something of a reach.
“[Grizabella] used to be young and beautiful and she wanted to go off and see the world. Now she’s grown old and beat up and she wants to come back to the tribe but she’s shunned. I’ve never played a role like this before and I’m friends with the other kids in the cast so when they try to keep me away in the play, we end up laughing,” Cassie said.
But she’s working hard to keep it together for the good of the show, she says.
Jessica Sela, 17, a senior appearing in her second KHS musical, plays Demeter, who Jessica describes as “one of the more sensual cats out there” and a leader of the opposition to Grizabella’s return to the tribe.
“She left and exposed herself to something different [and] I don’t want Grizabella’s influence on the younger cats,” Jessica said, explaining her character’s motivation. Pressed for more, Jessica added: “There may be some jealousy behind it, too.”
The notion of being protective as the character has a real life parallel for Jessica. “I’m defensive about what’s mine,” she says.
Demeter is aligned with the tribe’s second in command, Munkustrap, acted by another 17-year-old senior Michael Oliveira, doing his third KHS musical and bound and determined, after graduation, “to be on the stage for as long as I live, but I also want to teach [acting].”
“Munkustrap wants to protect everyone from harm,” Michael says of his character. He, too, has found a real-life situation from which to draw his motivation. “I have an older brother and younger sister and I’m kind of protective of them,” he explains.
In the context of the play, “When you offend someone in our group [by leaving it], you offend all of us, so I have to step in.”
Aside from the demands of learning songs and dance routines, choreographed by Milly Gonzalez, the young thespians are faced with another challenge – applying and performing under a ton of face paint and makeup – plus costume – designed to give each of the “cats” a distinctive look.
Kathleen Astrella, the show’s business manager, said that 10 AP Studio Art students have been recruited for makeup duties – which are considerable, given that it can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to complete work on one person, according to Toal.
So, in the interests of efficiency and time, Astrella said that, “Each AP student will be assigned to do makeup of three actors and the goal is to do everyone in two hours.”
“We spoke to one of the makeup artists who worked for the Broadway show – he’s now a university professor who teaches makeup artistry – and he graciously talked with us for an hour in great detail about the process so we were very fortunate to get that professional guidance,” Astrella said.
All of the costumes are being rented, she said.
A 15-member student crew, led by set designer and lighting director John Bednarczyk, is creating the “home” of the Jellicles.
The show runs Thursday, March 20, Friday, March 21, and Saturday, March 22, all at 7:30 p.m., in the high school auditorium. Admission is $8 for students and senior citizens and $10 for adults. Tickets can be purchased at the door.
Additionally, the KHS Players will present a free preview performance for senior citizens on Tuesday, March 18, with a pre-show dinner prepared and served by KHS culinary arts students at 5 p.m. in the high school cafeteria, followed by the play in the auditorium at 7 p.m. Seating is limited to 200 so seniors are encouraged to sign up in advance at any senior citizen center or with Sally Sprague at the KHS main office by 3 p.m. Friday, March 14.
And, as a treat for the younger set, the KHS Players will offer a kiddie matinee performance for children ages 12 and under, accompanied by an adult, on Saturday, March 21, at 1:30 p.m., in the high school auditorium. Admission is $6. As a bonus, kids will have a shot at face painting from 12:45 p.m. to 1:20 p.m. and during intermission and, after the show, starting at about 3:30 p.m. there will be photo ops with the cast of “Cats.”