MAPLEWOOD, NJ - It wasn’t enough that the high school actors were dancing atop a gigantic rubbish dump. The Broadway veteran of “Cats” was looking for more, much more as he keenly observed their feline movements.
“I need Lady Gaga,” said Jacob Brent, the actor best known for his role as Mr. Mistoffelees, encouraging the 40 performers on the Columbia High School stage to amp up their movements, playful fighting, tribal rivalries, and emotions to convince audiences, “I can sing, but I’m dangerous.”
Directed by “CATS” veterans Bethany Pettigrew and Tricia Benn, the students will be presenting much of the original jazz, acrobatic, modern ballet, and tap dance choreography that helped propel the musical’s long-running success on Broadway, London, on video and national tours.
Half a dozen members of the original Broadway and touring companies have stopped by to visit with the high school cast, reminiscing about their roles, developing characters drawn from the poems of T.S. Eliot (read your Greek mythology), and giving dance tips (stay low, an animal likes to be close to the ground).
“When I heard them sing the opening number, it brought back so many wonderful memories of doing the show,” said Carol Jaudes, a special guest who performed as Jennyanddots on Broadway. “I found the Columbia High School cast to be committed, hard workers and so very talented.”
In fact, it’s a pretty sure bet that audiences will go gaga over this high-energy production. “Cats” opens at CHS on Friday, March 14 for two weekends in the newly refurbished Columbia High School auditorium.
The “Cats” connection to Broadway starts with the directors of the high school production. Pettigrew and Benn are longtime friends who met playing Sillabub and Victoria respectively on the Broadway tour. They’ve invited a number of their colleagues to CHS to work with the students, a process the teenagers have described as “amazing.”
Ruby Zinner, a freshman, spent a Saturday afternoon with Maria Jo Ralabate, the Broadway Rumpleteazer. “I was so grateful to work with her. Maria Jo gave me great insight about my character and our number, and even gave me a Rumpleteazer make-up lesson,” Ruby said.
“I hope I remember how it’s done,” Ralabate admitted in a brightly lit, mirrored backstage room before transforming Ruby into an orange and white tabby.
Over the final weeks of rehearsal, there were visits from other professional actors Liz Mills (Cassandra, Bombalurina and Demeter) and Jean Arbeiter (Jellylorum ). Eric Scott Kincaid (Skimbleshanks) recalled growing up in Indiana, where his only chance to see a Broadway musical was the once a year televised broadcast of Peter Pan starring Broadway legend Mary Martin.
“It is still thrilling to me to think that years later, I would actually get to perform on that very stage -- the Wintergarden theatre -- where Mary Martin first performed in Peter Pan live on stage.” (The Wintergarden theatre was home to “Cats” for 18 years).
After working with the students, Kincaid said, “I'd forgotten how much DANCING there is in the show!”
The students were exhausted – and sweaty -- after a run-through of the “Jellicle Ball,” a featured scene of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
“If you can do that, you can do anything,” encouraged Brent, who played Mr. Mistoffelees in both the Broadway and London productions. “You’re going to be so hot in those costumes. Just get used to it.”
Performing are: Hannah Baker, Laura Ben-Asher, Aaron Braden, Olivia Calabrese, Devon Carlson, Adolphus Carter, Josh Ewing, Aanu Fawole, Max Goldner, Kamali Griffith, Luke Grzelewski, Bailee Gunter, Julia Herrero, Erin Hicks, Jacob Hirsch, Michael Hoey, Sarah Housley, Autumn Jones, Sarah Kleppe, Holly Lehren, Emma Leone, Carolyne Leys, Vivian Longstreet, Katharine Mattaliano, Brianna Newman, Hannah Nye, Grant King, Sydnie Levy, Sarah Noll, Funmi Onadipe, Julia Oppenheim, Jeremy Payano, Ali Pease, Tyler Reininga, Lilly Rothenberg, Lucy Schmidt, Kamille Scipio, Rachael Singer, Isaiah Thomas, and Ruby Zinner.
Alumnus Gregory Osborne returns to the CHS stage as Macavity.
Jamie Bunce and Peter Bauer, Columbia High School teachers, provide vocal and music direction. Tara Abbondante is the technical director. CHS Assistant Principal Michael Healy produces the show. Barbara Canace and Carol Rutledge are the costume designers, with scenic design by John Zacone, Mark Halliday and Rob Cohen
“CATS” will run two weekends, at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, March 14, 15, 21, 22 with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. March 16 and 23.
“I found performing in "Cats" a spiritual experience and cherish the memories of being part of this iconic musical,” recalled Robert DuSold, Broadway's Old Deuteronomy, another of veteran actors who shared his wisdom at the high school. “Working with these amazing students and fellow cast mates and staff has truly been a joy,” DuDold said. “I'm honored to be passing on the legacy of this show with everyone here ... Let the memory live again.”
Advance tickets are $10 and can be purchased in the CHS Main Office, at the Park Wood Diner, Maplewood Stationers, or Maplewood Pizzeria in Maplewood, and at Kitchen a la Mode in South Orange. Tickets are $15 the day of the performance.