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Wairarapa kids make Cats cool

Cats is one of my absolute favourite musicals – much to the consternation of my fellow theatre-loving friends.

“There’s no plot!” they protest. “There’s singing and dancing cats!” I reply. “What more could you want?!”

So, naturally, I was delighted to receive an invitation to the Jazz Dance and Drama Centre’s [JDDC] production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic, held at Wairarapa College last weekend. This was my first time at a JDDC show, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But just like my 10-year-old self after seeing Cats at the St James Theatre, I left the auditorium with a face sore from smiling, and a head full of all the signature tunes.

Cats is a huge undertaking for any theatre company, especially a young cast. The songs are big and virtuosic, the choreography has all kinds of acrobatics and body contortions, and there’s the added challenge of portraying believable characters the audience can root for – while still looking and behaving like cats. And the JDDC crew ticked every box.

The music is very much ensemble piece, with all cast members visible for most of the run-time. The JDDC cast worked together seamlessly – nailing every harmony, key change and high note, all while using every inch of the stage. The choreography, an artful combination of jazz, ballet and cat-like mannerisms [stretching, twitching, slinking and scratching], was tightly and professionally executed.

The musical is also known for show-stopping costuming – and the ensemble all looked the part in their teased wigs, furry accessories, and Bowie-esque makeup. For lesser performers, it would be easy to disappear under all those embellishments. But the young actors’ personalities shone through – their outfits complementing their performance rather than swallowing it.

The lead Jellicles were delightful – their backstories, lovable quirks and typical cat psychology brought to life by some talented youngsters. One of my personal favourites was Baxter Ferguson as the Rum Tum Tugger: The attention-seeking, highly disagreeable tom, whom the girls find impossible to resist. Baxter brought an almost Elvis-like swagger to the role – effortlessly charismatic, slyly pompous, and yet so very charming.

No less enchanting was Jack Brown as Skimbleshanks, the undisputed boss of the Glasgow Night Mail train. Jack played Skimble as a posh, impeccably poised and slightly affected pussycat – but one who takes his role seriously, and whom I would trust implicitly with all train-related business.

Speaking of serious roles – a crowd-favourite was Leo McKenzie as Gus, an elderly tom regaling the kittens with tales of his illustrious acting career. We’ve all met someone like Gus – an older person insisting “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” – and Leo did a brilliant job, backing up his wheezy boastings with spunk and warmth.

Another kitty fallen on hard times is leading lady Grizabella – a once glamorous showgirl, now shunned by her Jellicle peers. Lily Tulloch gave an elegantly understated performance, emoting an authentic sense of longing and isolation, without going over the top. This emotion was carried in her performance of Memory, with sustained notes and a beautiful natural break in her voice.

Fynn Brown and Leah Bunny took the energy up a notch as Mungojerry and Rumpleteezer, the tabby twins delighting in causing mayhem for their human household. Fynn and Leah gave arguably the most joyous performance of the night – never losing the gleam in their eye, and barely breaking a sweat tumble-turning all over the stage, while singing in near-perfect Cockney accents.

A shout-out must go to the supporting cast, some of whom had spectacular voices and stage presence. Stand-outs were Summer Anderson and Beth Bramwell-Cooke [Bombulurina and Demeter] for their luscious jazz vocals on Macavity, Rebekah Brown [Jellylorum – Gus’ caregiver] for her dulcet tones on Gus: The Theatre Cat, and Cody Laing-Bayley as Jellicle leader Munkustrap – who, once again, pulls focus in every scene.

Another shout-out goes to the set designers, who created a stunning junkyard backdrop – littered with graffitied cars, discarded tyres, and rusty bicycle frames, and fairy lights to add just a small touch of whimsy. The rubbish tip setting came in handy later on – with the ensemble using various castaways – bin lids, umbrellas, wheelbarrows, and car doors – to create a moving train for Skimbleshanks to patrol.

Another great night at the theatre in Wairarapa – one JDDC can feel justly proud of. A musical demands stamina, working memory, endless vocal exercises, and hours of rehearsals, and these young people are balancing all that with school commitments. It’s far from easy – but the kids handled it like pros, and deserve all the kudos.

Thank you, JDDC, for an excellent rendition of my favourite musical [who needs a plot?!]. Well done, kittens!

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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