Woodford Theatre stages CATS
BY KIM THOMAS
For every kid who ever read a book and let it take them to the far corners of their creative mind, there will soon be an opportunity to see over 70 students perform in Blackbird Dance Theatre’s Jr. Company presentation of CATS, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats opens at Woodford Theatre June 4, with two more performances on June 5, and June 6 at 7 pm.
Blackbird founder and artistic director Jenny Fitzpatrick says “The procedure for choreography is interesting with a show like this. Some of the musical numbers are iconic, and as a dancer who grew up admiring this show, it was important to me to give my students some, not all, of the original choreography.
“There were some things that Gillian Lynne (original choreographer) just got so right that I didn’t see the need to change. Plus, the kids have all seen it thousand times and they want the opportunity and the challenge of re-creating some of the original ‘steps.’ Because there are some ‘non-traditional’ things I have done with the concept it did call on me to create my own choreography in a lot of places, but I tried to stick to the style originally created by Gillian Lynne. I do several original concerts a year, so being able to go in and re-create something that I respect so very much, excites me and actually keeps my personal creativity fresh.”
“Every choreographer should put their personal stamp on their work, and I think it goes without saying that my stamp is pretty bold, so there is a nice balance of Jennyography and original choreography in this. There is plenty of creative wiggle room in any show you take on. No one says it has to be done a certain way —well, the critics sometimes do— but I think trusting my creativity and knowing what’s best for my dancers is the more important than what someone did before me.”
The heartbeat and emotional voice of reason of the show, Grizabella, will be played by Shannon Calkins, who’s preparing for her senior year at Lafayette. Shannon’s father, Berea vocal professor Mark Calkins tells me, “Shannon bought the book of poetry when she was eight and has been in love with the music since she discovered it was set to a musical.”
As a young beauty, Shannon will have to stretch like a feline to lap up her role as a Grizabella, the has-been, as age has not even begun to get going on the withering process. She considers her experience will help her breathe believability into the role. “I have been singing my whole life, and acting has been only slightly second to that. (Dance is newer to me but with Blackbird, it is amazing!) My parents are performers and teachers, and I deeply wish (need) to go into musical theatre — I don’t know what else I could do and still be happy!”
She explains how CATS is a unique theatrical animal all of its own. “The show is basically a dance heavy operetta, in that almost everything is in fact sung. The speaking is almost all written out on a specific beat as well, so if you don’t say what was written by Eliot or edited specifically by Webber to fit into the show, then you’ll get off of the whole flow of what it was meant to be.”
Calkins has deep respect for Fitzpatrick, with whom she shares a love for the book and show. “Jenny has told us that, like me, CATS was one of the first shows she fell in love with. She would watch the movie over and over (like me) when she was little and thus memorized all the dance in that version of it. Much of the choreography for our show is what was in that movie, but, I believe, is also her interpretation and I do know she has changed some of it to fit her concept of the show more closely—the characters and music.”
ALEX BELLOCQ will play Alonzo and admits, “The combination of the dancing and the singing is definitely the hardest hurdle to overcome, as the techniques that you use to sing and dance tend to counteract against each other.”
BRITTANY BENNINGFIELD explains the process of turning actors into singers and dancers and using their natural skills to create the best performance. “The challenge with any work that requires strong singing and dancing is teaching the artists to grab the most they can from both art forms, which is not easy to do. Breathing for singing is taught with a relaxed body, while dancing requires a tight core and strong muscles. Not to mention that trying to sing while dancing is just difficult in general. The performers in this show have really stepped up to the challenge, and are doing both extremely well.”
HANNAH NEFF says, “Singing Webber’s music and doing all of the intense, technical choreography together was very difficult in the beginning of the rehearsal process. Now, our greatest challenge as a company is finding the energy to keep every moment of the show fresh and exciting.”
“Brittany and Wes had the challenge of taking dancers, about half of whom sing in choirs and such, and making us sound like a company…At Blackbird, we are a family, and this show has pushed us all to really dance together as a unit, and work together as a company to make sure we tell our story as best we can to our audience. Jenny’s dedication to us and the hard work she has put into this show has given us the ability to do this.”
CARSON HARDEE is embarking on his first on-stage CATS journey as well, and says, “I play the Magical Mr. Mistoffelees and though I have not played this role before, I would definitely say the toughest chore is the dancing. In this role, I have to do 27 fuetes at one time. That has been a huge challenge, but Jenny has been working with me!”
HANNAH HETZEL-EBBEN is Munkustrap, the narrator of the show, and says CATS was her “favorite musical as a child. In fact, the DVD of CATS I own is so torn up that the case is in two separate pieces and the DVD has so many scratches that it skips some scenes. It was really what first sparked my love of musical theatre. Working on this production has been such a surreal and challenging project. For me personally, the dancing is what has been most difficult. I took technical ballet for 10 years (age 2-12) but took from age 12 to 16 to focus more on competitive swimming. It was shocking to realize how much knowledge of technical dance can leave you in just four short years. In spring of 2014, I joined Blackbird Dance Theatre, taking just hip hop class one day a week. When CATS was announced, I figured that I would be cast in a mainly vocal role with minimal dancing, as I am a Vocal Performance major at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts.”
Fitzpatrick is proud to bring a show of this magnitude with such young players to the community. “There are nearly 70 students in this production, so that’s quite a long list. I don’t double cast, so it’s the same cast of principles each night.” She points out that Blackbird is a fully functioning dance theatre company all on its own. “This will mark Blackbird’s 5th production since our beginnings in June of 2014. We collaborated as co-producer for CABARET, but we operate separately from KCTC.
Fitzpatrick points out that her studio is split into two companies, “the Jr. Company consists of only the kids who train with me, and the Sr. Company consists of myself, adult dancers and five student dancers. The Sr. Company performed in CABARET and we will be doing ROMEO AND JULIET in August.”
Opening night is June 4, 2015 at 7 pm at Woodford Theatre in Versailles.
This story also appears on page 11 of the June 5 print edition of Ace. Click to subscribe to the Ace digital e-dition, delivering Lexington, Kentucky news, to your inbox every Thursday morning.