“CATS” is all about memory-making. And not just because “Memory” is the musical’s most famous song.
The popular show, which comes to the Schuster Center Nov. 23-28, will also be memorable because it’s the first national Broadway tour to come to the Miami Valley since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s being brought to town as part of Dayton Live’s Premier Health Broadway in Dayton Series.
Since it premiered on the London stage in 1981, the musical spectacular by Andrew Lloyd Webber has been a hit in more than 30 countries and 15 languages. Winner of seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, it’s based on poet T.S.Eliot’s 1939 anthology, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” a guide to all kinds of cats from the streetwise stray to the pampered lap cat.
The story revolves around one magical night when an extraordinary tribe of cats gathers for its annual ball to rejoice and decide which cat will be reborn.
“For many people, “CATS” was the show that helped them discover a love of musicals and theater,” says Joe Deer, Wright State University’s professor of musical theatre and the artistic director of the Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures. “It’s almost unique in its longevity. It never seems to be out of style and there is always a new audience for it. I think that’s partly to do with the sheer fantasy of it, the energy of the production, and the way it invites us into a truly childlike world of make-believe. I don’t think there are enough cat lovers out there to account for this kind of sustained popularity, so, it’s something about the show! "
One of those captivated by the musical at a young age was Deer’s former student, Megan Arseneau, who remembers watching a VHS tape of the original musical with a friend. “I loved it and watched it again and again, but I had never seen a live production of the show,” says Arseneau, who grew up in Frankfort, Illinois and has loved singing and dancing since she was three.
Now, as a “female swing’' for her first national tour, she not only sees the live production many times a week but has the opportunity to portray six of the iconic characters. Arseneau, who began traveling with the company in September, has already been called upon to portray Bombalurina, The Gumby Cat and Sillabub.
A few weeks ago, in a Boise, Idaho theater, Arseneau spotted a little girl wearing a cat ear headband. “She was jumping around and saying ‘this is the best day ever!’ because she was so excited to see the show,” says Arseneau. “I was that little girl once and that’s a part of why I do what I do. It was a dream of mine to play Sillabub when I was younger and now I have actually played her in a National tour! " Singing part of ‘Memory’ with Grizabella is such a privilege.”
Deer remembers seeing the original New York production and being overwhelmed by the way in which it brought him into a fantasy world and the way it seemed to explode from the stage with dance, music, color, and costumes.” I felt like a kid in a magical wonderland,” he recalls. " Ultimately, that’s probably why we still love the show.”
Deer says “CATS” has given work to more Wright State grads than any other professional production. “I can think of at least a half dozen alumni who have done the show on tour, on Broadway or in London,” he says. “Nicole Scherzinger was nominated for an Olivier Award for playing Grizabella in the recent London revival. And now with Megan in the current tour covering most of the female roles, we’re very grateful to ‘Cats’ for giving so much work to our students!”
In addition to Arseneau, there’s another area connection. There’s new choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne. Blankenbuehler, who has been nominated for the Tony Award for Best Choreography five times, and has won three times for “In the Heights,” “Hamilton,” and “Bandstand,” is a native of Cincinnati.
“He kept a lot of the iconic work of Gilian Lynn from the original and breathed new life into it,” notes Arseneau. " It’s more modern and more athletic.”
Landing the job
Arseneau , who graduated from Wright State in 2020, spent her final semester studying online. Although her original plan called for moving to New York after graduation and beginning the audition process, she found herself back in Illinois. “I used the time living at home to save up money working different jobs, and I also worked on my physical health and fitness so I’d be ready when the time came,” she explains.
The time came when she saw an audition listing for the national tour of “CATS” and felt immediately it was the right job for her. She submitted an online audition tape but, with tour dates postponed due to COVID, she didn’t hear back for a year. Then, in early June, Arseneau was invited to come to New York for a week of call-backs which led to her being cast in the role of swing.
“As swing, you’re an understudy for a lot of roles in the show,” she explains. " You’re offstage, always on standby in case you have to go on in the middle of the show. Sometimes you know in advance that you’re going to play the part, sometimes you don’t. There’s definitely a rush of adrenaline when you hear you’re going to be going on. The first thing I do is go over my notes, and the choreography and track of the character.”
Her parents were scheduled to see the show when it was in Omaha. " I wasn’t scheduled to be on stage and planned to watch the show with them from the audience,” she says. “But at the last minute, I went on! It was very special and serendipitous!”
She spent a lot of time learning to do her own cat make-up for all six cats and learned how to move like a cat from Christie Cartwright, who flew in from London to teach cast members how to move like a feline.” I do have cats and am also a dog person,” Arseneau says. " I have an 18-year-old cat right now named Katy.”
After beginning rehearsals in August, the show opened in September. Arseneau says she’s loving the opportunity to explore new cities and loves being on stage. “The draw of the theater is to be transported from your everyday life,” she says.
She’s grateful for her years at Wright State. “I think you can get good training at a lot of schools but I think I really learned what it meant to be a professional in the musical theater biz at Wright State,” she says. “I remember one semester I was marked down on ‘professionalism,’ and they said it was because I wasn’t being brave and bold enough in my performance. That stuck with me, I worked on that and now it’s a strong suit of mine.”
Professor Joe Deer continues to be her mentor. “He’s always there when I have questions,” she says.
Deer insists there’s nothing like live theater. “Live theatre is unlike any other form of popular entertainment,” he says. “There’s something completely engrossing and deeply moving when an audience member is literally in the same room with the storyteller, and we willingly choose to believe that the actor is a cat or a princess, and go along on the emotional roller-coaster ride of the show, breathing the same air as the actors, being swept away by the sets, costumes, lighting, music and performances.
“All of us in the room are experiencing something that will only ever happen once. All of us in that theatre space become a small community for as long as the performance lasts. There’s nothing like it in the world.”
HOW TO GO:
What: “Cats,” the opening production of Dayton Live’s Premiere Broadway season
Where: Schuster Center, 1 West Second St., Dayton
When: Nov. 23-28; Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $26- $118. Available at DaytonLive.org, the Schuster Center Box Office, and by phone at (937) 228-3630.
Related programming: An hour before each performance learn about the development, history, and artistry of the show at a free event held in the Schuster 4th Floor Lobby.
SAFETY: Masks required for patrons 6 and over.
The COVID-19 Ticket Guarantee: If you feel COVID-19 conditions make it unsafe for you to attend a performance contact Dayton Live at (937) 228-3630 or email@example.com no later than one week prior to your performance. You can donate the value of your ticket, receive a credit or request a full refund.