Eugene Weekly : Theater : 1.28.10


Actors Cabaret Lands on Its Feet
CATS! in a small theater
by Anna Grace

London! New York! … Eugene? 

Rights to musical phenomenon CATS! became available on Jan. 20, 2010. Actors Cabaret of Eugene showed considerable restraint in waiting two whole days before opening their show making them possibly the first small theater to mount a production. Beyond being a completely entertaining evening, CATS! is a lesson in how hard work, passion and creativity can produce timeless and touching work.

Bustopher Jones (Don Kelley). Courtesy ACE.

If you are one of the five people left on Earth who doesn’t know the story of CATS!, allow me to fill you in. In the early ’80s, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber set T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to music, creating a hit that ran for an unprecedented 21 years in London and 18 years in New York and spawned touring companies throughout the world.

Director Joe Zingo tackled this iconic piece with a less-is-more attitude. Focusing on music and character, Zingo scaled back on the dancing and dazzling light show generally associated with the production. Rather than seeing hard bodies in skintight leotards doing the sexy cat dance, ACE audiences watch Eliot’s poetry come alive through song and character. 

Zingo uses the snug ACE stage to his advantage, creating a simple, cat-friendly world of nooks and crannies and platforms. The 23 actors easily arranged themselves, stretching out, flexing, or cuddling in piles of two or three. The energy Zingo saved on the set was poured into the incredible costumes. Each costume is different, all created by Zingo with input from the actors on how the character of each cat should look and move. Real and fake fur, hand painted tights, individually crafted wigs and whimsical makeup — the costumes alone could have stolen the show. Fortunately, the cast gave the clothing a run for its money.

Movement is a key piece in the success of CATS! Co-choreographed by Zingo and the amazing Chip Sherman (who plays Magical Mr. Mistoffelees) the dancing is purposeful, often slow, and designed to tell a story. Each cast member is consistently feline in action. Pick an actor and just follow his or her movements. You will never be disappointed.

Singling out star cats would be difficult. I enjoyed the strong voice of Kevin Boling (Old Deuteronomy) who looked for all the world like Michelangelo’s statue of Moses put in a cat suit.  Michelle Sellers and Larry Brown (Grizabella and Gus respectively) brought a poignant theatricality to the world of Jellicle cats. The expressive voice of Laura Elizabeth was nicely showcased.

My goal as a theater writer is to get the right audience members to the right play. This show will obviously appeal to cat people and those who love the work of TS Eliot. But if you’re in one of those categories, you’re probably already on your bicycle headed down to get your tickets (in which case you need to put down this review and focus on the traffic). The folks I hope to invite to this show are the skeptics. If you think a little theater can’t pull off a big budget musical, or if you’re put off by singing cats, I want you to open a little space in your heart for this production. Essentially, ACE presents a study in how a small town theater can reinterpret a big budget musical. 

CATS! continues through Feb. 27 at Actors Cabaret of Eugene. Tix at or (541) 683-4368.