Sunday, March 5, 2023

CATS - Canberra Philharmonic Society

David Santolin (Skimbleshanks) and Company.

Directed by Jordan Kelly - Choreographed by Caitlin Schilg

Musical Direction by Alexander Unikowski - Set designed and executed by Ian Croker

Costume Manager: Pip Muller - Lighting Designed by Alex Clifford

Sound Designed by James McPherson

Presented by Canberra Philharmonic Society - Erindale Theatre - 2nd - 18th March 2023.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Paul Sweeney (Old Deuteronomy) and company.

Having seen quite a few productions of “Cats”, both professional and amateur, I must admit that it’s a show I’ve often struggled to enjoy. The popularity of Andrew Lloyd Webbers musicalisation of a string of T.S.Eliot poems, requiring actors to spend the evening mimicking the mannerisms of cats, has always remained something of a mystery to me.

That was until last night when this remarkable production by the Canberra Philharmonic Society had me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end.

Director Jordan Kelly and choreographer Caitlin Schilg have surrounded themselves with a remarkable ensemble of dancers, singers, musicians and creatives to create a fascinating feline world in which every member of the huge cast comes across as recognisably individual.  

An extraordinary setting, the work of master designer, Ian Croker, utilises every centimetre of the Erindale Theatre stage to bring the action right down to the audience. It’s crammed with nooks and crannies for the cats to perch preen and hide, while providing plenty of room for a succession of spectacular dance routines.

This is a truly ensemble production with most of the cast onstage throughout. The stagings by Kelly and Schilg are remarkable in that every number has a totally different choreography. Schilg has drawn on a whole gamut of demanding dance styles to create a series of brilliantly staged production numbers which are executed with admirable commitment and precision by the huge ensemble.

Usually for productions of “Cats” the casts consist of slim, taut and terrific dancers. This cast certainly has those, but in keeping with the director’s concept to create a feeling of community, it also includes veteran actors and a range of body types.

Costume Manager, Pip Muller, and her huge team of makers, have embraced this idea by creating imaginative individual costumes and headdresses for each cast member. The costumes respect the traditional concept, flatter the wearer, and are enhanced by individual makeup designed by India Cornwell which reflects the character of each cat.

Because James McPherson’s sound design is so good, attentive audience members are able to identify various characters from the descriptions contained in the lyrics of the songs. For instance, diminutive Kara Sellars plays a character called Tumblebrutus who is described in a song as “Stumpy”. Sellars has embraced that description to create an adorable character you’ll want to follow throughout the show.

Silvana Moro (Rumpleteazer)  - Jeremy Chan (Mungojerrie)

Garrett Kelly, a stand-out as the sexy Rum Tum Tugger, has more than the kittens screaming as he sings and dances up a storm early in the show. Jeremy Chan and Silvana Moro as Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer delight with their frisky acrobatic routine. Daniela Oddi thrills with her amazing flexibility and grace as the white cat, Victoria, while David Santolin lights up the stage as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat. Jessica Gowing (Bombalurina), Kara Murphy (Electra) and Samantha Marceddo (Demeter) are sheer delight whenever they take centre stage, nailing their harmonies and sassy choreography with pizazz.

Watch out for Phillip Marlan’s poignant turn as Gus the Theatre Cat. Observe how Paul Sweeney commands the stage as Old Deuteronomy and how the stage lights up whenever David Cannell inhabits it as the suave, preening Bustopher Jones

Kirrily Cornwell - Grizabella

The role of Grizabella, the fading glamour cat, is written as a star turn with the hit song “Memory” requiring an outstanding singer. Kirrily Cornwell brought more to it than just a voice. From her first entrance, to her extraordinarily staged exit at the end of the show, Cornwell imbued her characterization with a compelling pathos that was heart-wrenching. The timbre of her voice is perfectly appropriate for her character, and needless to say she nailed the all-important key change. Hers was certainly a star turn.

There are many more performances worthy of comment, however space does not allow. But it would be remiss not to mention the outstanding musical direction of Alexander Unikowski. From the very first notes of the overture, his tight control over his excellent orchestra was obvious.

Extended pauses and carefully balanced orchestral sound, supported by imaginative lighting design by Alex Clifford, produced an exciting air of expectation at the beginning of the show. Elsewhere he showed excellent restraint by not allowing the orchestra to overwhelm the lyrics, but still produce an exciting full-bodied sound for the big production numbers.

A triumph for Canberra Philo, Kelly, Schilg, Unikowksi and their team, “Cats” is one of those rare local productions where everything was “right on the night” with every critical element, direction, choreography, design, sound and lighting perfectly in place to ensure a memorable evening of theatre. If this reads like a rave review; it is meant to.

         Photo Credits: Hero image: Ben Appleton. All other images: Bridie McKay

  This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 4th March 2023.