Tuesday, June 19, 2012


CATS prowl as Mercury Summer Stock finds new home

Like many local theatres, Mercury Summer Stock, has experienced a vagabond existence. Founded by Pierre-Jacques Brault and Brian Marshall, the summer theatre seems to finally have found a permanent home in the Regina Auditorium at Notre Dame College in South Euclid. The large venue, with a huge stage, lends itself to the free wheeling choreography and staging by Artistic Director Brault.

Along with a change of venue, the organization has altered its mission. Previously billed as a professional theatre, though they seldom had more than one equity performer appear in any production, that aspect of its theatrical explanation has been dropped, opening the door for evaluating the shows based on expectations for their usual high school and young college student performers.

A new home, new performance schedule (the addition of Sunday matinees), and a new goal statement which includes ”advancing theatre as a means of educating, challenging and inspiring through family-friendly programming rarely seen” are all part of the changed vision for the company.

Mercury’s 2012 opening production is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS. Based on OLD POSSUM’S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS by T. S. Eliot, the show is a series of poems set to music. There is a loose story line about a tribe of cats called the Jellicles and the night they make the choice of who will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to new life.

The only memorable song in the score is Memory, whose lyrics were written by Trevor Nun, based on the Eliot poem, Rhapsody on a Windy Night. It was made famous by Betty Buckley, who played Grizabella in the original Broadway production.

The show originally opened in London in 1981 and ran for 21 years. The Broadway production, which opened in 1982, ran for eighteen years, and was performed 7485 times, making it the second longest continually running show in history. (THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which is still going in New York, is the extended-run leader.)

CATS is a difficult show to produce, even for professionals, let alone for a group of high school and college students who are just learning their craft. Almost every song requires a production number, so the key element of the staging is dance. In addition, the score has shades of opera and is difficult to sing. Another major issue is that since there is little drama or no humor, holding the audience’s attention is difficult.

As evidenced by the three tween girls who were sitting in front of me, wiggling, slumping in their seats, and generally showing boredom, this is not a show for children and may be a challenge for adults.

The Mercury production, directed and choreographed by Brault, has some high moments, but these are eclipsed by some issues.

On the positive side, Brault’s choreography is creative. He has cast some good dancers. Especially strong is Jake Washabaugh who appears well trained in ballet and controls the stage when his long thin body whips high turns, does flexible leg kicks, and executes powerful lifts. Also strong are Zach Pfeil, Katlyn Dessoffy, and Taylor Bryan.

Traditionally, the action takes place in a junk yard. For some inexplicable reason Brault decided to switch that to a child’s room, complete with board games, a toy car, balls and building blocks. Nothing in the show references such a setting. Maybe he thought making the whole thing into TOY STORY would help. It only confuses. Why would 20 cats be prowling a child’s room?

Brault’s costume designs are clever. He suggests cats, rather than creating authentic cats. The same is true of the cast. They did not consistently become cats, they represented them, with a minimal number of cleaning, preening and stretching gestures.

Eddie Carney’s orchestra puts out full sound, but, unfortunately, the large playing space gobbled up the five pieces, making the sound slight. This was not helped by the squealing sound system, and weak projection by some of the cast. Blinking lights at weird times also didn’t help.

Staging highlights included The Old Gumbie Cat, The Jellicle Ball, and Mr. Mistoffelees.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: CATS was not all that could have been hoped for as an opening show in Mercury’s new venue, but, considering the difficulty of the show, and the developing abilities of the cast, Brault and company can be commended for a “nice try.”