Amateur theatre – Cats

Thursday 24 September 2009

As you know, Cats (the musical that is, not the four legged furry bastards with the egos) is my all time favourite musical. I love it, love it simply to bits, and even after seeing it recently for the second time 20 years later, where I realised that it’s really all just a little (read: huge) bit naff, I continue to love it. As Karen says in Love Actually (one of my favourite movies I should add) “True love lasts a lifetime”, so what sort of feller would I be if I suddenly dumped Cats and went after some new floozy, like Avenue Q?

(Incidentally, did anyone catch this? I know! Isn’t it just too horrible for words? I tell ya, I can’t work out what is worse – what she’s wearing or that it’s just the worse case of Rich Daddy Syndrome I’ve ever seen.

Actually, it reminds me of an old joke. Many versions of it but a good one goes something like: There were these two old married university professors and one day the wife comes home and finds a note. “Dear wife,” it says, “I am writing to say that after 40 years marriage I have decided to leave you. As you are aware being a science teacher a relationship is based on chemistry, which you and I no longer have, so I have gone and run off with the 20 year old head cheer leader because, being a mathematics teacher, I know that she and I add up to equal one. We will be enjoying my 60th birthday in the Bahamas. Please forward any mail to the following address.”

A couple of weeks later, the husband opens his mail and finds this: “Dear husband,” the wife wrote back, “Thank you for your letter. I was very sad to discover that you have left me, but, being a science teacher, I should have done my research better. Still, I am very happy for you and wish you and your cheer leader girlfriend well. I want you to know that I am doing well too. Not wanting to sit at home and wallow I have decided to shack up with the 20 year old captain of the football team because, as you know being a mathematics teacher, 20 goes into 60 a hell of a lot more times that 60 goes into 20.” Boom boom.

Umm… this blog was supposed to be about a show I saw so I better get back to it.)

Back in July I joined a mailing list for local amateur theatre. I’m tired of not seeing things and finding out about shows after the dates have past. I think I was inspired after discovering that there will be a production of Spamalot in October (still haven’t got tickets, have sent reminder to work to do tomorrow) and finding out there’s been a number of G&S’s early in the year (I’m sure I’ve already done this line but I always say there are only two types of musical theatre: Gilbert and Sullivan). Imagine my pure delight when I discovered there was going to be a production of Cats! I was over the heavyside layer I can tell you (Cats reference there, to all you theatre heathens! (Note to self: don’t insult the readership.)). So, a couple of Saturdays ago, Melanie, BC and I went and saw the Holroyd Musical and Dramatic Society (HMDS) production of Cats.

The HMDS is a Western Sydney based amateur theatrical society that stages four productions a year – two musicals, a play and a panto; this year they are doing Alice in Wonderland. While the plays and pantos they choose are traditional amateur theatre fodder, they have tended to punch above their weight with the musicals. Last year they did both West Side Story (a hella lot of complicated dancing) and Les Miserables (the classic story of Sir Les Patterson feeling down in the dumps… I think. I’ve never seen it). When I read they were attempting Cats I knew that there were two possible ways it could go, but also that both ways would be highly entertaining to watch.

The three of us arrived at Wentworthville (it’s about an hour by train out west of Sydney, two stops past Parramatta) and found a nice little Chinese restaurant for some dinner. We thoroughly enjoyed the classic dishes of garlic prawns, sweet and sour pork and combination chicken, and a bargain of a price at $45. Back at the theatre we found our seats and promised ourselves the option of leaving at half time if the show was really bad.

The overture started and already I was grinning ear to ear. I knew we were in for something special, and I wasn’t disappointed. There is just something kind of wonderful about the sight of someone who should know better prancing about in a unitard. As Melanie said, some of those performers faced their worst nightmares to go out publicly in those costumes. The costumes were, actually, extremely good with huge amounts of furry details, it’s just that most members of amateur theatre don’t have a dancer’s build. Or can dance, for that matter. It’s a pity that Cats requires a good deal of both.

The performers were, over all, very good, but let me highlight some of the more “special” artiste. Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer were two chunky actors who did a great job of hamming it up, though I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t end their number by performing the traditional “double windmill” across the stage. Mungojerrie (the part that I would love to play) was particularly special; not only was he equipped with his mother’s bum and his father’s belly, he also had a lisp, which meant he sung his song something like this:

Mungojscheree and Rumpleteaser
We’re a notorsczhious couple of catscz
Aschz knockabout clownsczjh and quick-jszcange comedianzchs
Tight-rope walkezsph and acrobatcszjhs.

Humour is found in many places.

The actress playing Grizabella the glamour cat was well too fed to be playing a part. She had the legs of an elephant, so perhaps it was apt that hers is the one that sings “Memory”? I did wonder if she was related to the director.

(Incidentally, I can say things like that as I spent nine great years with the Broken Hill Repertory and saw more than one production decision based on nepotism. Truth be told, sometimes it’s the easiest way to fill a play as you then know the strengths and weaknesses of the cast. I know that I got parts as I knew the directors well (not that well, but they knew I’d be perfect for the part) and I’d cast friends too knowing they’d be fun to have around during rehearsals. I should, while I’m here, thank a certain old school librarian friend of mine who gave me one of my first theatrical parts in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (I played the chocolate factory Charlie). Considering she knew me through six years of school plus kindergarten I’m sure made her decision a lot easier in selecting me. After that role, and for the next nine years, there wasn’t many plays I wasn’t involved in, be in on stage or behind curtain. So, thank you Rosemary, I have a lot to you to be thankful for.)

Where was I? Oh yes.

The guy playing the Rum Tum Tugger was clearly having a good time. The three of us also had bets that he was probably the only straight actor in the whole show – BC’s gaydar was no registering. It was going DING DING DING something chronic for Mr Mistoffelees (I think the ballet training didn’t help) while mine was ringing away for Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, another favourite role of mine. Skimbleshanks had a lovely jawbone and lots of nice facial expression being trained in the school of overacting, though when singing was unable to project over the orchestra; it didn’t help that he kept running out of breath halfway through his phrasing too. I didn’t mind as I was singing the song softly to myself anyway. Jennyanydots, the old Gumbie cat, was quite gorgeous, though she was wearing this dress that was so covered in frills that whenever she moved she looked like a overzealous flapper. All the wiggling was annoying me by the end, especially when she’d do it in the middle of someone else’s song – naughty upstaging! The ladies who did most of the singing – as they mostly narrate the songs I’m not sure of their names – were all great. As BC said about the show, “I could understand every word” and I have to agree. A couple of times I realised that all these years, listening only to the original Australia cast recording, I’d been singing the wrong words!

Special mention – in fact a whole paragraph to himself – has to go to the bloke in the Munkustrap role. The black and silver tom Munkustrap is the storyteller and protector of the Jellicle tribe, and second in command after Old Deuteronomy (I stole that description from Wikipedia). Munkustrap is pretty much the most important cat on the stage and should be played like a solid wall, standing broadly, shoulders squared, with his arms ready to defend. This is a cat always on guard, always ready to protect. The ultimate Alpha Cat, that’s how it should be played. Well, not in this production. This geezer instead spent the whole play with one arm outstretched to the audience singing to an invisible scull, with a facial expression that could have been fervency or could have been trying to remember what was on the shopping list. I think he secretly wished that he was having a go at “Memory”. If that cat was the protector I’d be stocking up on insurance. As second in command he was definitely a Number Two. Alpha Cat? More like Alfalfa Cat!

(I have to that Brad for that last line. I mentioned to him that I had spent the day trying to wrack out a good joke at the actor’s expense and the best I had come up with was “Instead of Munkustrap being the 2-I-C, he was more the Pooh-I-See.” While it (sort of) works as a spoken gag it looks terrible on paper. Actually, it’s pretty bad any way you look at it.)

So, basically, the guy playing Munkustrap was crap.

But, and here’s the but…

This is amateur theatre. Those performers are probably shop assistants or teachers or bank clerks during the day and have given up three, four nights a week for the last few months to be in this show – for free! They do it because they love being on a stage and being someone else for a couple of hours, and that to me sounds like a great thing as it’s something that, at times, I terribly miss. It’s all very well for me to sit there with my choc top and scoff about how much better I would have been in that part, but it’s not me up on that stage. So, I think you have to commend all amateur theatre players because their dedication is something to be admired.

It doesn’t help if they’ve done a bad job, though.

This, luckily, was a good show and BC and I really enjoyed ourselves. “Kinda like a popcorn musical. Fun and entertaining. And sooooo camp” is how BC put it. Melanie I think had a fun time but she can be disparaging of a performance which pisses me off no end, especially if I’ve forked out for the tickets (we won’t mention My Fair Lady). I think, watching her out the corner of my eye, she enjoyed the show a lot more at the beginning but it started to grate and by the end it was a bit of a chore. But – hey! – it’s a night out in good company and on that level what more could she ask from amateur theatre?

Actually, this was a lot more professional than some professional shows I’ve seen. BC has just reminded me that halfway through the “Macavity” number every microphone – the head mikes and the positional mikes – blew. The lasses singing this very dramatic song just kept going and proceeded to project their voices in compensate for the sudden loss of volume. Their ability to come through such a disturbing “live” moment deserved the extra boost of applause. Unfortunately the mikes were gone for the rest of the show (which luckily is near its end anyway) but everyone did a great job in coping.

So that’s that then. I would encourage you to all go see the production but it finished two weeks ago. Oh well.