By Kharisma McIlwaine
Some Broadway shows have stood the test of time and continue to do so; “CATS” is one of those shows. The Tony award-winning play has the distinction of being the 4th longest running Broadway show of all time.
“CATS” tells the story of a group of junkyard Jellicle cats on the most important night of their lives. Each year the cats have a Jellicle ball where one cat is selected and given a second chance to be reborn. The dynamic story and choreography does more than just entertain, it is a reflection of the human experience told through the lens of cats. “CATS” highlights the challenges that so many of us experience on the path to trying to find one’s way, trying to find where we belong and seeking acceptance. In January of this year, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic show launched its first North American national tour. Several members of the touring casts spoke to the SUN about this phenomenal show.
There are so many unforgettable characters in the world of “CATS”. One such character is Old Deuteronomy. Old Deuteronomy is the patriarch of the group, and in many ways the glue that binds all the Jellicle cats together. Brandon Michael Nase takes on the larger than life character in his first ever national tour. Originally from Amarillo, Texas, Nase, who hasn’t been in the business for very long, has accomplished a great deal. Formally a public school teacher with an undergrad degree in music education and a graduate degree from NYU, Nase taught for two years before pursuing his true calling — performing. Prior to joining the cast, he was part of “Frozen Live” in LA and “The Black Clown” at the American Repertory Theater. Nase spoke about his experience joining the cast of “CATS” as well as taking on such a big character.
Nase said, “While I was doing “The Black Clown”, I got the email from my agents. I auditioned and came to New York. We have Mondays off normally in the theater world. On one of my Mondays off I came in for a small team and sang through the Old Deuteronomy track and here we are!” He added, “I’ll be very honest, I’d never seen “CATS”, I didn’t really know the show before. When I got the material, to learn it was the first time — I had never seen the material. After researching and learning who this cat was in the world of this musical of cats…Old Deuteronomy is the wise, loveable, sage and warm presence of this group of cats in this junkyard. He commands and demands a certain amount of respect, but he doesn’t have to do anything. He just walks into the room and everyone is like, ‘It’s Old Deuteronomy he’s here!’
Old Deuteronomy has a kindness that is only matched by his quiet strength. That kindness is shown through the compassion he offers to the other Jellicle cats.
“As the story goes, every year the Jellicle ball happens and they all come.” Nase said, “At the end of the Jellicle ball, Deuteronomy chooses one cat to be reborn… to experience redemption so to speak, and travel up to the heavy side lair to have a new life. I am learning as we go through how loving he is… in a way that we don’t really see portrayed today. He doesn’t chastise the cats whenever they’re acting up (and there are a few that act up). He has a way of saying there’s a better way to do things. He gets kidnapped in the show and taken away, and even in the midst of that he still comes back and says breathe. He has this grounding, warm, calm, soothing presence about him.”
The show “Black Clown” that Nase participated in prior to joining the cast of “CATS” is based on a poem by Langston Hughes, about the Black experience in America. Nase was involved in the new work both behind the scenes and on stage. As an African American male it was an important for him to be a part of telling that story. Nase spoke about the importance of the diversity in “CATS” and the importance of roles like Old Deuteronomy.
“Old Deuteronomy is one of those legendary roles for a Black man. We have Ken Page that did it originally on Broadway, then we have Quentin Earl Darrington who just did it in the revival. For me personally, just to be able to join the ranks of those legendary men and the countless other men who have done it on other tours…it’s surreal. But also, it’s an amazing moment to realize that they’re cats. They should all be different colors, shapes and sizes when it comes to casting a show like this. It is one of the opportunities that this community gets to truly celebrate diversity. It is a dream come true.” Nase added, “This is a story that right now we need. There’s this group of all of these different kinds of beings. There’s this one that’s flirtatious, there’s one that’s shy, there’s this one that’s made a lot of mistakes… but it doesn’t matter who they are, they all come together and by the end of the show they all fully embrace one another. We’re all here in the same place going through the same struggles.”
One of the characters that struggles the most in the show is Grizabella. An outcast amongst her fellow cats, Grizabella stands on the outside looking in until Old Deuteronomy truly sees her. Nase spoke about the dynamic between the two characters, the importance of second chances and leading with forgiveness.
“He and Grizabella don’t have a lot of interaction until the end when I choose her. I think from the beginning, Old Deuteronomy sees Griz and he doesn’t see a cat that should be shunned. He just sees somebody that needs to be [welcomed] — someone that needs that love and support of a community. Of course, he sees that she’s made some mistakes along the way, but she’s probably judged herself enough that we don’t need to judge her anymore for that.”
In the national tour, Grizabella is played brilliantly by Keri René Fuller. The Oklahoma native made her Broadway debut in “Waitress”. She is also making her national tour debut in “CATS”. As Grizabella, Fuller plays a broken person that gets a shot at redemption… a story that we need to see much more often. Fuller shared her audition experience.
“When my agent called me about this audition I laughed. I was like there’s no way that I as a 25-year-old would play Grizabella.” Fuller remarked, “When I was a little girl, I have no idea where I got the VHS of the London production of “CATS”, but I wore out that VHS. It was fascinating to watch — I had never seen anything like it! When I first saw it, I thought how beautiful and captivating the song “Memory” was, and Ellen Paige’s rendition is of course the OG.” She added, “When I went into my initial audition, of course I already knew the song because it’s “Memory”. I remember going into that audition and thought, well this is probably one of my only chances to ever do this, so just live your truth, go in there and sing for the gods, and just hope you remember the words. I’d never sung the song before, so hearing myself sing it in a room where the acoustics were incomparable was the best. I remember that feeling of maybe this will happen for me. It was the first time I really believed in myself to play this role. I didn’t think I would ever play Grizabella and here we are today with me playing Grizabella. It’s unreal and I’m so fortunate.”
The depth and pain present in the character Grizabella is unbelievably moving. There’s a longing and agony sewn throughout her story. Fuller described her take on the character.
“Grizabella is a gift, and kind of a gift in disguise I think. When I first went into the auditions for Grizabella I would go to the text of course, but I thought she’s sad, she doesn’t feel like she belongs, she’s aging and she feels like running out of time. But that’s the extent that I went to”, Fuller said. “Further into call backs we started talking more about the character, and they were like it’s not enough that she’s sad and sings beautifully… she has to have this deep yearning of wanting to come home to a family that she once belonged to that now shuns her. And of course, all of us… no matter who you talk to, know what it feels like to not belong or not to fit in. Fitting in and belonging are two very different things. Not fitting in means you don’t fit other people’s standards for you and belonging is you don’t fit because of who you are. I think that’s why Grizabella is so poignant because she feels like she doesn’t belong. That’s so much more of a desperate feeling.”
Another unforgettable character in the show is the magical Mister Mistoffelees. Originally from Charlotte, North Carolina, Tion Gaston plays the character with a flair that is incredible to witness. Gaston described the character and his personal connection to him.
“He can appear out of nowhere, he makes objects disappear, he makes lights appear…he just toys with everybody’s mental state.” Gaston said. “He’s very sly, slick, he gets away with a lot of things, and he’s the dancing cat. I’m a dancer at heart, so this world is new to me. The dancing makes me feel at home. The singing is a little uncomfy, but it’s ok because it’s a world that I’m pushing through to get to.” He adds, “He’s just me, I love to be one place and then another. The character really emulates who I am and it’s a great role to have.”
In addition to the allure of Mister Mistoffelees’ cunning ways, the athleticism and dancing ability that this character displays is captivating. The dancing in “CATS” is just as iconic as the music. Gaston shared his appreciation for the choreography.
“The choreography is very specific and I love that. I’m very detail oriented. Coming from the dance background you have to look at something and pick it up as quick as possible. Coming in you have to make sure that your paws are the right way, that your thumbs are not sticking out because cats don’t have thumbs in the same place as humans. As far as the choreography aspect, Gillian Lynne is crazy! It’s fascinating how her mind really embodied the cat, the research that she did to embody the cat, and how she takes that, puts it on her dancers and really specifies what she wants. Putting all of the little nuances and movements that cats do, to choreography for a lot of people is tough, but she got it together and got it ready for everybody”, Gaston said. “That’s the magic of “CATS”. The dancing is iconic, and taking this piece of history, which we just revamped… and being able to be a part of that history as well as being on the first national tour is amazing. It’s breathtaking thinking about the opportunity that I’m getting now.”
The show combines the choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler and the original choreography of Gillian Lynne, in a way that is very cohesive. Phillip Deceus, who is trained in ballet, jazz, modern and tap plays Alonzo in the show. He spoke about both his role and the choreographic styling of the show.
“Alonzo is the uncertain cat. He’s black and white and it’s funny that he’s black and white because [his] character is very uncertain, but he’s vain. As they are giving us the choreography, I’m beginning to understand what it means. He’s kind of on his own, on the sidelines and trying to figure it out. When he’s scared he’s trying to figure out if he should be scared or somehow find courage. He’s trying to find courage throughout the show.”
Deceus added, “The choreography is very balletic, contemporary, a little of modern, jazz and everything in there. Andy Blankenbuehler’s style adds this depth that is just dope. The Jellicle ball itself is a masterpiece that is going to stick around forever. I love every bit of choreography that I’m learning. It just feels real, it’s genuine and it means something… it has value.”
The cast members of the “CATS” national tour are truly phenomenal! Their ability to transform and embody the movements of cats while emoting the human experience is magical. The chemistry between the cast members is palpable, the choreography is above and beyond, and the musical performances are so incredibly moving.
“CATS” will be at The Forrest Theater through June 30th. This is a show you do not want to miss! Visit www.kimmelcenter.org for more information on tickets and show times. For more information on where the tour will land next visit https://ustour.catsthemusical.com.