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Jellicle Cats Come One, Come All: CATS Returns to Broadway

July 31st, 2016 Comments off
Andy Huntington Jones and the cast of 'CATS.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Andy Huntington Jones and the cast of ‘CATS.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Cats—whether you’re talking about the household pet or the legendary Broadway musical—are polarizing. People either seem to love the deliberate aloofness of four-legged felines or wonder, “Why bother?”

Over the years, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats has become a parody of itself. (A Saturday Night Live commercial parody dating back to 1986 helped spawn the phrase, “I laughed, I cried, it was better than CATS.”) But one can’t deny the impact of a show that swept the 1983 Tony Awards with 10 nominations and 7 wins including Best Musical. With 7,485 performances, the original production still ranks as the fourth longest-running show of all time.

Kim Faure and Christine Cornish Smith in 'CATS.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Kim Fauré and Christine Cornish Smith in ‘CATS.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

While cats are said to have nine lives, Broadway’s incarnation has at least two, with the first revival opening tonight at the Neil Simon Theatre. Directed, once again, by Trevor Nunn, a nimble ensemble takes to a raked stage littered with oversized garbage conceived by returning set and costume designer John Napier. For those who saw the original mega-hit, things look strikingly familiar—from the strings of brightly colored lights that adorn the junkyard set to that famous tire that ascends to the Heaviside Layer.

But where this CATS strays from its predecessor is in its choreography, brilliantly reimagined by Andy Blankenbuehler (Tony Award-winner for his work on Hamilton) and based on original choreography by Gillian Lynne. She expressed anger earlier this year for the changes to her work, stating, “It makes me feel like I’d like to murder. I have had a rotten time because of it. I did create the show, I really did.”

Georgina Pazcoguin in 'CATS.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Georgina Pazcoguin in ‘CATS.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Yes, Ms. Lynne, you did. But you also provided a blueprint for Blankenbuehler to imbue CATS with a new sensibility; one riffed with syncopation and characterization.

Those familiar with the show will recognize the feline elegance of Victoria (Georgina Pazcoguin), the mischievous antics of Mongojerrie (Jess LeProtto) and Rumpleteazer (Shonica Goodin), and the magical athleticism of Mister Mistoffolees (Ricky Ubeda).

Demeter (Kim Fauré) and Bombalurina (Christine Cornish Smith) get a jolt of 21st century sexuality, while Jennyanydots (Eloise Kropp) tears a page out of 42nd Street with a tap number that rattles the rafters. Blankenbuehler earns his choreography credit in the playbill, but does so in a way that pays respectful homage to the original.

Leona Lewis in 'CATS.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Leona Lewis in ‘CATS.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

This production had a bit of a catfight when it came to casting the part of Grizabella, the Glamour Cat—a pivotal part that provides the musical’s emotional through-line. Nicole Scherzinger was scheduled to reprise her Olivier-nominated role on Broadway but pulled out last-minute to return to her gig as a judge on X Factor.

In an ironic twist, X Factor season three winner Leona Lewis landed the role, but her performance is a weak link in an otherwise stellar ensemble of triple-threats.

CATS has seen its share of Grizabellas, from West End original Elaine Paige to Tony Award-winner Betty Buckley and her longtime replacements Laurie Beechman and Liz Callaway. Each unique in their interpretation, Grizabella demands star power and a command of the stage (along with workhorse vocal chords that can belt an E-flat eight times a week). Though Lewis has the vocal chops, she’s markedly uncomfortable in comparison to her onstage litter.

In a bit of unintended irony (or a missed light cue in what is an otherwise visual feast from lighting designer Natasha Katz), Grizabella ascends to the Heaviside layer in upstage darkness, quickly forgotten as Old Deuteronomy (Quentin Earl Darrington) re-addresses the cats and ‘a new day has begun.”

Only time will tell is this CATS has staying power, but as we all know, cats tend to multiply, as do audience members craving an escape from the world’s woes. A dog’s life seems pretty easy, but these cats are having way more fun.

CATS
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
Open-ended run

Want more CATS? Check out our exclusive interview with cast member Ahmad Simmons. Click here!

 

Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @roodeloo.

Theater Buff: Ahmad Simmons Debuts in CATS

July 21st, 2016 Comments off

Purr. Every month, a fabulous actor/singer/dancer fills out editor Matthew Wexler’s nosey little questionnaire and offers a glimpse of what he looks like from a bit closer than the mezzanine. And with all that fur and makeup, we’re happy to strip down Ahmad Simmons as he prepares for his Broadway debut in the much-anticipated revival of CATS.

Ahmad Simmons (Photo: Cheryl Mann via The Broadway Blog.)

Ahmad Simmons (Photo: Cheryl Mann via The Broadway Blog.)

Name:
Ahmad Simmons

Home State:
Texas

CATS is a Broadway legacy — when and where did you first see the show and what was your reaction?
My obsession with CATS started back when we performed a part of the opening dance recital with Dian West back home in Texas. I think I was a freshman or sophomore in high school and had just started at the studio. I got the VHS and watched it to see how to paint a unitard to look like a cat but then watched it every night for about a year. I remember playing the jellicle ball over and over again… I couldn’t get enough of it.

Ahmad Simmons (Ryan Lowry via The Broadway Blog.)

Ahmad Simmons (Ryan Lowry via The Broadway Blog.)

Tell us about your audition for the show and your role of “Alonzo.”
When I first saw the audition notice I freaked out. I actually was on a little layoff between tours with Parsons Dance so the timing was perfect. I went to the open call and was immediately terrified. It was actually my first big Broadway audition. The waiting room is my doom… There were over a hundred men. They all seemed to know everything about everything.

My main focus was just to be seen by Andy Blankenbuehler. He is my favorite choreographer. I kept thinking, “no matter what happens, you were in the same room with Andy.” When I got the email saying I was called back I flipped. Then four more rounds later, my life changed! I love playing Alonzo. He’s got a distinct look and gets to really dance a range of emotions. This particular version allows him to be more gritty and aggressive. 

This is your Broadway debut… what has surprised you about the rehearsal process?
I was pretty prepared for what the schedule would be from doing some summer stock during college. The most surprising thing to me was the amount of people involved to make a Broadway showhappen. Every department has at least five people in it. That was new for me; especially coming from a concert dance background where it’s normally just the dancers, a choreographer, a composer, and a lighting designer.   

Ahmad Simmons (Photo: Jason Ratigan via The Broadway Blog.)

Ahmad Simmons (Photo: Jason Ratigan via The Broadway Blog.)

There were some harsh words reported in the media about original choreographer Gillian Lynne’s reaction to Andy Blankenbuehler’s additional choreography, telling The Stage, “It makes me feel like I’d like to murder.” How do you think his vocabulary of movement is going to improve upon a classic?
Andy is a master of creating brilliant movement that furthers narrative, bleeds intention, and narrows focus. Those are the main things that make a show like CATS even better that it was before. He has such respect for the original body of work and is treating it with the utmost reverence. Our generation is able to access this story at a pace that suits the audience of today. The expectations are higher so our job is even harder. Loyalists will be able to recognize the CATS they fell in love with while feeling its weight and relevance in today’s society.

Which is your favorite: Places, Intermission or Curtain Call? 
Definitely places. Hearing the audience respond the overture gets me so hyped!

The best post-show cocktail in New York City is at:
My new favorite place for a drink is Tanner Smith’s. The drinks are worth the price and the atmosphere is fun. OH, and the nachos are bangin!

Ahmad Simmons (Photo: Jason Ratigan via The Broadway Blog.)

Ahmad Simmons (Photo: Jason Ratigan via The Broadway Blog.)

After you’ve hit all the traditional sites of New York City, you should totally go to:
Chelsea Market. Because who doesn’t love a ton of options for food and a sample sale.

If I could live anywhere else in the world it would be:
Probably Italy. I’ve never been but the people are beautiful, the language is beautiful, and I love carbs. 

My workout “secret” is:
This makes me feel guilty because I haven’t quite found my way to the gym since moving here in August. But… I swear by good vitamins and good natural ingredients.

Ahmad Simmons (Photo: Jason Ratigan via The Broadway Blog.)

Ahmad Simmons (Photo: Jason Ratigan via The Broadway Blog.)

When I’m looking for a date, nothing attracts me more than:
Creativity! I don’t need anything extravagant but it’s nice to be surprised with an experience that’s more than just dinner and a movie.

My favorite website to visit that you may not have heard of is:
Right now I’d say Wayfair because I just moved and all I ever want to do is shop for furniture online. 

People would be surprised to learn that I . . .
Won the gold medal at the World Choir Olympics in Bremen, Germany in 2004 with a professional boys choir I spent 10 years singing in. Texas Boys Choir, represent!

When I was 10, I wanted to be just like:
My great-aunt Yolanda Smith. She was the director of all of the choirs at my church. I used to lock myself in the bathroom, put a shirt on my head (for hair) and wave my arms at the mirror as if I was her directing my own gospel choir. How did it take me seven more years to come out?

Ten years from now I’d like to be:
Giving a new generation of dancers opportunity to realize their dreams in the arts.

CATS
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
Opening night: July 31

Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook at @roodeloo

Gotta Dance! Astaire Award Nominees

May 30th, 2013 Comments off
Billy Porter in “Kinky Boots.” (photo: Matt Murphy)

After seeing A Chorus Line from the last row of the balcony on my very first trip to New York City, I spent about a week trying to replicate the opening dance sequence in my college apartment. Without the ability to touch my toes or do a single pirouette, it was a futile effort, but it did give me a great appreciation for the art form of dance.

This year’s Fred & Adele Astaire Awards will honor those masters of movement whose skill set is more developed than my own. The Astaire Awards is the only awards show to honor excellence in dance and choreography on Broadway and in film and were first started in 1982 by the late Fred Astaire and the late Douglas Watt (a critic and writer for the NY Daily News and The New Yorker).

Tony Award-winners Susan Stroman, Bebe Neuwirth, Cady Huffman, Kathleen Marshall and Karen Ziemba are set to present at the awards, taking place on Monday, June 3 at 7:30pm at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. Also set to present at the awards are Mary Testa, Christiane Noll, Harry Belafonte, Rex Reed, Michael Riedel, Anna Bergman, Lee Roy Reams, Dancing with the Stars’ Tony Dovolani, Carson Kressley and Countess Lu Ann de Lesseps.

This year, The Astaire Awards will also honor dance legend Marge Champion with its Douglas Watt Lifetime Achievement Award and special presentation by Harry Belafonte. Ted Chapin will be presented with a brand new award, Outstanding Achievement in the Preservation of Musical Theatre. Choreographer Warren Carlyle will present the pas de Deux from The New York Philharmonic’s performance of CAROUSEL with New York City Ballet’s Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck as part of this tribute.

Taylor Trensch, Lesli Margherita and Gabriel Ebert in "Matilda The Musical." (photo: Joan Marcus)

This year’s nominees include:

Outstanding Female Dancer in a Broadway Show
Charlotte d’Amboise (PIPPIN)
Taylor Louderman (BRING IT ON)
Laura Osnes (CINDERELLA)
Patina Miller (PIPPIN)
Andrea Martin (PIPPIN)
Lesli Margherita (MATILDA)
Stephanie Pope (PIPPIN)

Outstanding Male Dancer in a Broadway Show
Eric LaJuan Summers (MOTOWN)
Rob McClure (CHAPLIN)
Andy Mills (CINDERELLA)
Billy Porter (KINKY BOOTS)
Charlie Sutton (KINKY BOOTS)

Outstanding Choreographer of a Broadway Show
Andy Blankenbuehler (BRING IT ON)
Warren Carlyle (CHAPLIN)
Peter Darling (MATILDA)
Jerry Mitchell (KINKY BOOTS)
Josh Rhodes (CINDERELLA)
Sergio Trujillo (HANDS ON A HARD BODY)
Chet Walker (PIPPIN)
Patricia Wilcox & Warren Adams (MOTOWN)

Outstanding Choreographer in a Feature Film
Sidi Larbi Cherkaouit (Anna Karenina)
Alison Faulk (Magic Mike)
Mia Michaels (Rock Of Ages)
Mandy Moore (Silver Linings Playbook)
Poonam Shyam (Trishna)
Jamal Sims, Christopher Scott, Chuck Maldonado & Travis Wall (Step Up Revolution).

The Details:
The 31st Annual Fred & Adele Astaire Awards
Monday, June 3
7:30pm
Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University (566 LaGuardia Place).
Select tickets are available to the public priced at $425, $200 & $75
www.FredandAdeleAstaireAwards.com