Tag Archives: Cats

The CATS meow

I like my cats curled up on couches or stretched out on window sills. Seeing Andrew Lloyd Webber bring T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” to life in all its furry feline glory, a process he started late in 1977, is about as thrilling as sniffing a felt mouse stuffed with catnip.

But I’m taking a new look at the musical “Cats,” thanks to photos shared by Spotlight Youth Theatre of Glendale — which is performing the work through Sun, Sept 18. Enjoy these snippets of “Cats” creativity photographed by Alayne Vogel of Memory Layne Photography, which are laced with lovely bits of Andrew Lloyed Webber news and trivia…

  • Webber has composed many works you’ve likely never heard of — including “The Likes of Us,” “By Jeeves,” “The Beautiful Game,” and “The “Woman in White.” My personal favorite is “Whistle Down the Wind.”

  • Webber’s awards include seven Tonys, three Grammys, seven Oliviers, a Golden Globe, an Oscar, two International Emmys, the Praemium Imperiale, the Richard Rodgers Award for Excellence in Musical Theatre and The Kennedy Center Honor.

  • “The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall,” a 25th anniversary production presented by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, will be screened live at hundreds of North Americans movie theaters Sun, Oct 2 (including theaters in Glendale, Mesa, Phoenix and Tucson). Visit www.fathomevents.com for details.

  • “The Phantom of the Opera” has grossed more than $5.6 billion worldwide — with box office revenues that “are higher than any film or stage play in history” (including “Avatar,” “Titanic,” “E.T.,” and “Star Wars”).

  • Until recently, only “By Jeeves,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita,” “The Likes of Us,” and “Sunset Boulevard” were available on license from Webber’s “Really Useful Group.”

  • Today the BBC reports that “Really Useful Group” is starting a rollout of major musicals to education and amateur markets. These shows will include “Whistle Down the Wind” and “Starlight Express.” Versions of “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera” for UK and Irish schools are “identical to the professional productions.”

I’m told that Spotlight Youth Theatre added an extra performance of “Cats” Sat, Sept 17, at 1pm. Shows have been selling out and we certainly don’t want anyone showing their claws.

– Lynn

Note: Learn more about “Cats” and the rest of Spotlight Youth Theatre’s 2011/12 season at www.spotlightyouththeatre.org. Those interested in buying tickets to “Cats” should call Kenny Grossman at 623-521-8093. Learn about all things Andrew Lloyd Webber (including licensing rights) at www.andrewlloydwebber.com.

Coming up: More Andrew Lloyd Webber on Valley stages — plus a bunch of things that have nothing to do with Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Going green in NYC

Though large bags of trash get piled throughout the city before garbage trucks can get to them, New York appears to be way ahead of Arizona in the “green” movement. Circular trash bins sit on many a street corner, but in many indoor settings, you’ll find separate containers for paper, glass and the real rubbish that can’t be recycled.

When I attended parent orientation for the incoming class at Lizabeth’s university in NYC today, the food services director spoke with genuine enthusiasm about the school’s many “sustainable” practices — buying local foods and such. More evidence that New York trumps Arizona in the green department.

Our hotel in lower Manhatten is “green” is some deliberate and unintended ways. They’ve got low water usage toilets that turn flushing into a funky form of upper arm workout, and eating utensils in the dining area made by “Tater Ware” — whose slogan reads “We’re the Solution, Not the Pollution.” Both cutlery and wrap are biodegradable. And because the hot water goes out most days, we’re saving energy by taking cold showers.

I’ve encounted another sort of green with alarming frequency here in NYC. It seems there’s a Starbucks ’round nearly every corner. For a while I had great fun photographing them all. But I’ve seen enough now that they’re starting to bore me, with one exception — the dancing cups ala Starbucks in “The Book of Mormon.”

Parks are plentiful in NYC, and I never tire of seeing them. Many feature public art and paths lined with benches. Often they’re the landmarks that help me navigate the city. And they’re never empty, except when closed up for the night. I sat in a park around midnight one evening, and had plenty of company.

But my favorite “greens” in NYC are all those lush window flowerboxes, giant potted topiary and small rectangular plots of plants that surround the trunks of many a tree in all sorts of neighborhoods. I’ve met some lovely people while photographing their gardens, and hope you’ll enjoy these images of their handiwork…

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–Lynn

Coming up: Pianos meet public parks

In the spotlight

Samantha Utpadel of Litchfield Park remembers her daughters auditioning during 2008 for the school edition of “Les Miserables” being performed by Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale. Both Alexandra (Ixy), now a junior music major at Willamette University in Oregon, and Sophia (Sophie), now a soon-to-be senior at Arizona School for the Arts, were cast.

Beauty and the Beast cast working on choreography

Utpadel says “the show turned out to be a very special experience in many ways.” She’d started her own college studies as a theatrical design major, and helping out with costumes, hair and make-up — plus serving as spot operator for most of the run — helped Utpadel return to her roots.

“For the girls,” she says, “it crystallized a love of performance.” Utpadel describes theater as “addictive” and notes that “things kind of went on from there.” Soon she was doing serious costume duty alongside a good friend whose son got involved thanks to Utpadel’s daughters.

“Spotlight truly is a labor of love,” shares Utpadel. “It started at a time when theatre for youth was disappearing in the Valley, and is really the result of a crazy love for theatre and the belief that kids should get the opportunity to take part in that.”

Sophie describes Spotlight Youth Theatre as “an amazing place to be.” She praises them for producing consistently “awesome” work and for “being a place where I feel I truly belong.” Here’s more from Sophie in her own words…

Backstage at Beauty and the Beast

When I first auditioned at Spotlight, I was terrified, not just by the prospect of not being cast, but by not fitting in. Would the other kids like me? Would I like them? Would there be drama? Thankfully, I didn’t need to worry about any of these things. I was welcomed into the Spotlight community.

Sophie says the acceptance she’s experienced at Spotlight is a “huge part” of why she’s such a loyal fan, despite the fact that there are other youth theaters in the Valley. “I have made friends there, and even better, I have made a family.”

Doing hair and make-up backstage for Fools

Utpadel eagerly shared the 2011/12 season for Spotlight Youth Theatre with me as soon as it was released, noting that it “exemplifies” the company’s work. It’s a mix, says Utpadel, of classic and challenging materials. And it gives young actors a chance to “learn different styles of music, choreography, and scripts.”

The 2011/12 season for Spotlight Youth Theatre opens with “Cats.” Sophie recalls loving the show since she “was little” — even naming her cat “Victoria” after a white cat in the show. “I think that it will appeal to lots of people,” she says.

Rehearsing the number Luck Be a Lady

Next up is a musical double feature with a Halloween vibe — “Zombie Prom” and “Once More With Feeling” (an homage to “the musical episode of Buffy“). I suspect that my own daughter, Lizabeth, will applaud the effort. Her senior quote in the ASA yearbook is a little pearl from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Spotlight presents “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” in December, then moves on to “Godspell” during January. “Godspell” holds special meaning for Sophie because it was the first show she did at ASA. Ixy also performed in “Godspell,” as well as “Runaways,” with ASA — and she’s been in two operas presented by Willamette students.

Next up is “James and the Giant Peach,” based on a book of the same title by Roald Dahl. Utpadel describes herself as “a huge fan” of the offbeat author and already seems to be imaging the outraeous set possibilities.

Bushel and a Peck from Guys and Dolls

My own favorite from the 2011/12 Spotlight Youth Theatre season is “Sweeney Todd School Edition.” I’ve seen two live performances with Lizabeth, one by the Arizona Opera and another a touring production at ASU Gammage – and enjoyed the movie with my older daughter Jennifer.

I never tire of telling Lizabeth that “Sweeney Todd” is a love story, but she disputes the claim every time. I’m hoping the youth theater version, devoid of some of the show’s bloodier elements, will make the many moments of profound love portrayed in the piece more apparent.

Spotlight Youth Theatre closes its 2011/12 season with “Annie” — the one musical people just can’t seem to get enough of. It makes for a great mother/daughter outing. Or grandmother/granddaughter outing, according to Utpadel — who recalls that “Annie” was the first show she costumed as a sophomore in high school.

I saw Spotlight Youth Theatre earn all kinds of awards at last year’s AriZoni awards ceremony. Still, it’s clear that there’s more to this story. Sure, they’re making good theater. But they’re also creating friendships, confidence and memories — all things especially worthy of the spotlight.

– Lynn

Coming up: Summer dance and theater offerings

Photos by Samantha Utpadel

Pinky’s picks

Update: Pinky has asked me to share this link to a raffle benefiting an organization called “Save the Cats Arizona” — which we learned of from our friends at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe. The raffle runs through July 31, 2011.

Several community theaters recently rolled out their 2011-2012 season announcements. But I imagine my cat “Pinky” fancies the new season for Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert more than most.

Hale opens their 2011-2012 season on Sept 2 with an Agatha Christie mystery titled “The Mousetrap” — a work that now holds the distinction of being “the longest running play in the world.”

Pinky isn’t terribly concerned that a murderer may be loose in London’s Monkswell Manor. But she’d love to be on the guest list if there’s any real prospect of finding mice trapped at mealtime.

It’s a Wonderful Life,” which opens at Hale on Oct 14, might seem to hold less cat-appeal, until you recall that the work — featuring one man’s struggle with doubt and disappointment — is set in a small town readying to celebrate Christmas.

We could treat Pinky to piles of pet store treats and toys come Christmas time, but she’d still find her bliss jumping into piles of crinkled up and discarded wrapping paper — and rubbing her wet little nose up against the corners of shiny packages under a tree sporting ornaments she’s sure were placed for her swatting pleasure.

Hale follows “It’s a Wonderful Life” with “A Christmas Carol,” which opens at the Gilbert theater on Dec 1. Even Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, who takes such delight in denying comfort to the poor and downtrodden, couldn’t ignore the pitiful pleas of Pinky when she’s ready for dinner.

I imagine Pinky would eagerly curl up beside the fire with Tiny Tim, offering a gentle purr as warming as the fire’s glow — and have great fun sitting with Tiny Tim in a chair by a window overlooking bustling holiday season streets.

Hale opens “See How They Run” Dec 31, giving Valley theater-goers a chance to welcome the New Year with comedic farce and fast-paced frivolity. Pinky might not know what to make of this one — with its cockney maid, men dressed as clergymen and a whole lot of misadventures spawned by mistaken identity.

Pinky might favor a different “See How They Run” plot — perhaps something featuring plump quails bobbing their tiny heads as they cross the road, or quivering dogs terrified by cats with an inflated sense of self.

Hale notes that folks who attend their production of “42nd Street” — which opens Feb 16, 2012 — will “love seeing the underdog succeed.” But Pinky”s never pleased when the word “dog” and “success” appear in the same sentence, so this will be a harder sell.

Perhaps she’d be more receptive if we decked her out in a slick tux with tails, then gave her a tophat and cane, so she could try a little soft-shoe during songs like “We’re in the Money,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” or “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.”

I’m afraid to tell Pinky about “Barefoot in the Park” — a Neil Simon comedy featuring the adventures of two newlyweds and a matchmaking mother-in-law — which opens at Hale on Feb 21, 2012. She’s perfectly fine with living the barefoot life, but might resent the “park” mention given her indoor-cat status.

Rabbits hold plenty of interest for cats, so Pinky might be thrilled to learn that a rabbit named “Harvey” is coming to Hale on April 5, 2012. But only until she learns that Harvey, the imaginary companion of Elwood P. Dowd, is more than six feet tall — and invisible.

Pinky spends plenty of time watching our own bunny, named “Rugby” — as well as a pair of lovebirds named “Taffy” and “Trixy” — who occupy pet pads near a staircase perfect for panoramic viewing of all things potentially edible.

I’ll need to have a little talk with Pinky about this next one — “To Kill a Mockingbird,” opening May 25, 2012. It might be a lot like a conversation I had with my husband recently that ended with the quip “you’re so literal.”

The classic work, based on the novel by Harper Lee, is set in the Deep South of the 1930s. It has nothing to do with killing birds — or leaving them as trophies on a “Welcome” mat outside the front door. Instead, it’s a tale of friendship and love amidst of world filled with prejudice and hate.

Hale closes its 2011-2012 season with “Bye Bye Birdie,” opening July 13, 2012 — which follows a teen singing sensation drafted into the military during the 1960s. Having used more than my fair share of “cat eats bird” fodder already, I suppose I’ll have to find a different link to all things feline.

Happily, the musical’s songs include not only “Put on a Happy Face” but also “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” — no doubt a reference to the “nine lives” of cats.

I know pets aren’t typically allowed at community theater productions, so I suppose Pinky will have to settle for nibbling on programs we bring home from Hale Centre Theatre productions.

But you can’t really blame me for conjuring images of my cat with every mention of birds, mice or bunnies. I can only imagine how the dogs living next door might react to seeing the musical “Cats.”

– Lynn

Coming up: Dance and identity

Photo: Christopher Trimble

Amazing meets A-MAH-zing

My daughter Lizabeth poses with Broadway legend Betty Buckley

Those of you who are puzzling over the title of this post clearly weren’t lucky enough to snag tickets to see the amazing Betty Buckley perform at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts last week with piano and comedic accompaniment by the “A-MAH-zing” Seth Rudetsky.

For all the time we spend with Rudetsky via our car radio and the SiriusXM Radio “On Broadway” channel, he might as well be my fourth kid. He certainly seems eccentric enough to be one of us.

Rudetsky opened last week’s show with tales of his own childhood foray into live musical theater productions like “HAIR” at an age when most kids can’t even spell four letter words. Many related to film clips projected onto a giant screen — including my personal favorite from a horror flick called “Carrie” (something folks my age saw during the waning days of drive-in movies).

Soon Rudetsky was introducing Buckley, known to many for her amazing performance in the musical “Cats,” which features the song “Memory” — a little number Buckley now calls her “signature song.” Other songs she performed that evening included “Meadowlark,” “Send in the Clowns,” and even “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” (from the bawdy “Avenue Q”).

My daughter, Lizabeth, may have been the only teen in the house that night. It seems Lady Gaga was also performing in the Valley, and while we admire her work on- and off-stage — we’re going to see if she’s got Buckley’s staying power before we go gaga for one of her gigs.

Buckley opened this Scottsdale concert (I’m told it was her third) with “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from “Sunset Boulevard.” The piece was requested by, and dedicated to, Linda and Sherman Saperstein, who were celebrating their wedding anniversary that evening and graciously stood while Buckley led the crowd in singing “Happy Anniversary to You.”

I noticed in reading my program that the concert was “presented with support from Linda and Sherman Saperstein.” I was delighted to meet Mr. Saperstein after the show, and offered my heartfelt thanks for the couple’s support of arts and culture. Without such generous souls, many of us would never get to experience a bit of the magic of Broadway in our own hometown.

The “Broadway by Request” show is a blend of beautiful vocal stylings and storytelling. Buckley drops plenty of names along the way — Stephen Sondheim, Bob Fosse and others that might take you by surprise.

Buckley’s passion for performance, and musical theater, was evident in each anecdote, as she proffered with panache her theater experiences from school days through today. Seems Buckley got her first gig from her first audition — on her first day in New York City.

But life in the theater isn’t all smooth sailing, as evidenced by her tales of an egregious agent Buckley had to do away with in short order. A single thread seemed to tie all of Buckley’s stories together. The woman never stopped knocking on doors — or pounding, frankly, if that’s what it took to land the roles of her dreams.

Buckley complimented the Scottsdale crowd for its sophistication after a few of her therapy-related revelations were accepted with warmth and good humor. Apparently some folks in the Midwest react to similar material by casting a pall over the theater. Buckley recalled the day her therapist, dismissed shortly thereafter, gave her advice we’ve all heard at one time or another (usually for free): “Get over it.”

After Buckley shared several songs featuring especially glorious belting, Rudetsky sent her offstage for “two cups of hot tea” — then took over the mic to demonstrate one of his own great passions: “Deconstructing.” He explained in detail the intricacies of Buckley’s vocal performance, then played a sample of her singing as he talked the audience through each element.

Buckley and Rudetsky (who has admired Buckley’s work since boyhood) make a powerful pair. Rudetsky caresses the keys like Buckley caresses the air — and both have genuine flair.

Lizabeth and Seth Rudetsky

Buckley and Rudetsky enjoyed a lengthy standing ovation after wrapping the show, and another after an encore featuring a single haunting song. Both graciously stayed long after the concert to autograph programs, CDs and such. We were thrilled to chat with them briefly, and I couldn’t resist the urge to solicit advice for Lizabeth as she heads off to study theater.

Buckley’s offered a single word: “Practice.” Seth had a great deal more to say (all of it good) but seemed genuinely puzzled about why, when Lizabeth rattled off the list of colleges/conservatories on her “short list” of favorites, she didn’t mention Oberlin College & Conservatory – his own alma mater. We love Rudetsky’s loyalty, and want to assure him that Oberlin tops the list of plenty of students at Arizona School for the Arts.

Now if only there was a “Seth-mobile” bumper sticker for the teen taxi that routinely blasts “Seth’s Big Fat Broadway” during all those drives between home, school and theater adventures…

– Lynn

Coming up: Bald chairs?, Fiddling around in Alaska, How hip is “HOP?”

Spoiled in Scottsdale?

Those of us who live in Scottsdale often get a bad rap for being richer or more pampered somehow than folks who live in other parts of the Valley. We actually downsized significantly when we moved to Scottsdale, and we weren’t living all that large to begin with.

Still, I often feel spoiled in the performing and visual arts department — thanks to the wealth of arts resources in our neck of the woods. Think Heard Museum North Scottsdale,  Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art — and many more.

Portrait of modern dance legend Merce Cunningham (from the DNA Dance website)

Tonight I’m heading out with Lizabeth, my 17-year-old daughter, to enjoy the latest legends to hit the local scene. I’ve seen more than my fair share of legends at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Most recently, I experienced the work of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

This evening we’ll be attending “Betty Buckley: Broadway by Request” at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Buckley received her first Tony Award after performing the Broadway classic “Memory” in the musical “Cats.”

Portrait of Broadway legend Betty Buckley (from Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts website)

Other Buckley credits include “Sunset Boulevard,” “Carrie,” “Wyatt Earp” and “Tender Mercies.” Tonight she’s performing vocal selections coupled with storytelling to include backstage anecdotes.

Buckley will be accompanied at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts by musician and comedian Seth Rudetsky, who helps our family make all those trips to and from high school each day feel fun rather than frustrating — though that’s hardly his greatest claim to fame.

His piano performance has graced Broadway shows that include “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera” — two of my favorites from the pre-“Avenue Q” and “In the Heights” era.

It would appear that I’m spoiled in many ways — because my husband James was kind enough to alert me to the fact that if I leave my laptop right this minute, I might also be able to catch some of “Opera in the Park.”

It’s a free viewing of a filmed performance of “La boheme” by Arizona Opera taking place at the Scottsdale Civic Center, adjacent to the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

I may be spoiled, but don’t blame Scottsdale. Unless of course you want to pin it on my husband and Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. They’re guilty as charged — but it’s a good thing.

– Lynn

Note: This post describes March 26, 2011 performances that have already taken place.  Click here for information on upcoming performances at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

Coming up: Art and “Asher Lev”

My fondness for “Fiddler”

Scene from "Fiddler on the Roof" (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Most folks know the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” thanks to songs like “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Tradition.”

It’s a lovely part of one of our own family traditions — enjoying touring Broadway productions, and other performing arts fare, at ASU Gammage in Tempe.

Often I take in shows with just my 17-year-old daughter, Lizabeth, herself a bit of a fiddler after a decade or so of violin study. She’s the family musical theater expert — and eagerly awaiting letters from the colleges where she recently completed B.F.A. auditions.

But seeing “Fiddler” at ASU Gammage — like “Phantom of the Opera” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” — has been a family affair.

The musical has plenty of elements that appeal to children — the rooftop fiddler, the sibling spats, the grandma “dream sequence,” the lively songs and dance sequences.

I first saw the show while parenting three young children, but this time around I’ll have the perspective of a mom with three grown children grappling with many of the issues treated in the show.

The longing to belong. The urge to break away. The pull of duty. The push of desire. The traditions shared by generations. The new paths forged by youth. The interplay of the personal with the political.

I confess to forging my own path with the song “If I Were a Rich Man” several years ago while performing with fellow parents at a talent show.

We were chaparoning a summer camp session of the Phoenix Girls Chorus, and changed up the words as an homage to artistic director Sue Marshall (who now heads the blossoming Arizona Girlchoir).

Thankfully, “If I Were Miss Sue” made its debut before the advent of YouTube and viral videos. Seems to me I did something similar with “Memory” (from the musical “Cats”) one year during a parent talent show at my children’s elementary school.

My favorite audio of the “Fiddler” variety is a recent interview with Harvey Fierstein that Lizabeth and I heard in the car one day — where we often listen to the SIRIUS XM “On Broadway” channel.

Fierstein has performed the lead role of Tevye (the father and milkman in this tale inspired by the stories of Sholom Aleichem), and eloquently shares the impact the show had on him as a young Jewish boy.

My “kids” may roll their eyes when the “Fiddler” song “Sunrise, Sunset” comes through the car radio speakers. But I know that one day, they’ll appreciate the lyrics to this and other “Fiddler” songs that capture the currents of change in family life and the world beyond.

– Lynn

Note: Watch the ASU Gammage website for the early March announcement of their 2011-2012 season — and head to ASU Gammage this week to enjoy the musical “9 to 5.”

Coming up: More musical theater with a family-friendly feel, Valley students present a series of one-act plays

This and that

Ron May directs a contemporary play titled "This" for Actors Theatre

Recently I enjoyed a fast-paced conversation with Ron May, a Valley director known to many as founding artistic director of Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe.

He’s either way ahead of me in the espresso department or seriously working a juggling riff. Maybe both.

May is readying for this Friday’s opening of “This” — a work by contemporary playwright Melissa James Gibson described in December 2009 by Charles Isherwood of The New York Times as “the best new play to open Off Broadway this fall.”

Anne Marie Falvey (Jane) in the Actors Theatre production of "This" by playwright Melissa James Gibson (Photo: John Groseclose)

It’s one of several works by women playwrights being produced by Actors Theatre this season. We can look forward to the Arizona premiere of Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” in April and May.

Gibson’s “This” resonates with May for several reasons, including its treatment of love and loss. Last year May lost both his mother and a friend named Scotty Jeffers — a beloved Valley actor last seen performing in “Androcles and the Lion” with Childsplay.

Hence the tribute “For my mom. And for Scotty J.” at the end of a bio May has posted on the Stray Cat Theatre website — which also notes his long list of directing credits, a couple of his acting gigs and the glamorous stint that “pays the bills.”

Previous shows he’s directed for Actors Theatre include the Arizona premiere of “Boom” — as well as “A View of the Harbor,” “Augusta” and “The Pursuit of Happiness.”

The central character in “This,” which runs Jan 21-Feb 6 at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix, is a woman in midlife whose husband recently died. As the teaser for the show notes: Jane is not alright.

Jane’s friends, says May, aren’t exactly helping. Seems they think that fixing Jane up with a “hottie” might do the trick, but things don’t quite unfold as expected.

David Dickinson (Jean-Pierre) in "This" -- which opens this Friday at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix (Photo: John Groseclose)

May hails from Chicago — a city he clearly loves, and honors right up there with New York City and Los Angeles when it comes to stage offerings and opportunities.

Chicago is home to a diverse assortment of unique and intriguing theater experiences for both practitioners of the theater craft and those of us who fill the house every night. Think The Second City, American Theater Company and Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

He first experienced the wonders of live theater as a junior high school student. Seems the same gentleman who coached May’s speech team also ran the school’s theater department.

The teacher encouraged May to audition for a play — something about a man in grey flannel, recalls May. May was cast. But more importantly, he was “bit by the bug.”

May headed to college to study acting — in a program that required actors to take a directing class. A directing teacher told May at one point that although his acting was just fine — he might be even better at directing.

He suspected at the time that this was simply her gentle way of telling him to throw in the acting towel. But she’d seen something in May that he had yet to see in himself.

May ended up studying at Arizona State University in Tempe, where he earned a B.A. in theater with a directing emphasis. Stray Cat Theatre grew out of work with nine of May’s ASU friends who “all had a taste for a certain kind of theater.”

Most were from other parts of the country and dreamed of working in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. May hadn’t yet heard of Actors Theatre, despite the fact that it will soon be celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Stray Cat Theatre began as a class project for a theater organization and management class. “We had to make up a theater company,” recalls May — who describes himself as “a huge cat fan.”

Like the theater May most enjoys watching and working with, cats are “rougher around the edges.” Knowing the company would likely live for many years without a permanent home, May dubbed it “Stray Cat Theatre.”

Today, Stray Cat Theatre makes its home in a charming red brick building once occupied by Childsplay Theatre, a professional theater company performing works for children and families.

Childsplay’s founder and artistic director, David Saar, is another gifted artist who graduated from ASU. My 17-year-old daughter Lizabeth grew up watching Childsplay performances and participating in Childsplay workshops, camps and conservatory — and will soon be heading off to study theater in college.

I’m thrilled that she’s been able to experience the works of Actors Theatre, Stray Cat Theatre and so many other outstanding companies here in her own hometown. The Arizona theater community has given her roots, and now wings.

But what of May? Doesn’t he long to return to Chicago’s vibrant theater vibe? “Arizona has been good to me,” muses May. He’s able to do the work he enjoys in a place where he sees a real need.

May likens the work of Actors Theatre to the sort of movies you’ll see at Harkins Theatre Camelview 5, a Scottsdale cinema that presents works a bit more provocative than most. In contemporary parlance, says May, the best descriptor might be “Indie.”

Actors Theatre describes its own work as “vital, contemporary, electric, thought-provoking theatre.” It’s hard to disagree.

Yolanda London (Marrell) and Anne Marie Falvey (Jane) in the Actors Theatre production of "This" (Photo: John Groseclose)

Part of the appeal of directing “This” for Actors Theatre is the obvious parallel to May’s own life in terms of midlife musings. “This script reallly spoke to me,” reflects May.

“It’s about that whole choppy middle-age thing, which is where I hit right now,” adds May.

Like May and his circle of college friends from the early days of Stray Cat Theatre, the central character Jane has a group of friends who’ve been together for years.

But life is intervening, and it isn’t always pretty. Babies happen. Unexpected relationships happen. Friendships splinter or wither away.

Like so many of us who’ve matured, sometimes kicking and screaming, into middle age — Jane realizes that “the cards she was dealt aren’t the cards she expected to be holding.”

Anne Marie Falvey (Jane) and Oliver Wadsworth (Alan) perform with Actors Theatre (Photo: John Groseclose)

May says he has “a tremendous affection for the play,” describing it as “incredibly funny and smart.” Yet the name of the play doesn’t exactly wow him. Given May’s fondness for word play, I suspect he’s toyed with an imaginary title or two.

After all, May did a bang-up job naming the pet he describes as “a gift from an ex of mine.” Seems the cat came to him with a lot of what May describes as “eye boogers.” So now he’s more than mere actor or director. He’s daddy to a black cat named “Boogers.”

A little this, a little that. It’s really all any of us can wish for.

– Lynn

Note: Click here to learn more about “This,” being presented Jan 21-Feb 8 by Actors Theatre at the newly-renovated Herberger Theater Center (near the Arizona Center and Sympony Hall).

Coming up: Unstoppable theater, More fun with theater cats (and dogs)

Photos by John Groseclose, courtesy of Actors Theatre

One singular sensation

Mesa and Phoenix welcome a touring production of "A Chorus Line" this week

Actor Michael Douglas reclaimed the headlines recently after sharing that his throat cancer has been successfuly treated. It’s a great relief to Douglas’ many fans, and wife Catherine Zeta-Jones — who won the 2010 Tony Award for best lead actress in a musical for her performance in “A Little Night Music.”

But did you know that Douglas, perhaps best known for roles in “Fatal Attraction” with Glenn Close and the television series “The Streets of San Francisco,” was in the 1985 “A Chorus Line” film?

“A Chorus Line” is the tale of diverse dancers auditioning for a role in a Broadway musical. Douglas played Kurt, the director auditioning these 17 dancers on a bare stage that leaves them feeling various degrees of vulnerability.

It’s a story with true staying power — as evidenced by its current national tour, produced by NETworks Presentations, which stops this week in the Valley. A final Mesa performance takes place Wed, Jan 12. “A Chorus Line” hits the Orpheum Theater in Phoenix Jan 13-16, thanks to the Theater League.

It’s a “mature audiences only” production with a single act that runs about two hours  — but I consider it perfectly fine for teens, and even some children who are experienced in musical theater. Individual parents are always the best at judging such things.

Lizabeth and I are excited about seeing the show while it’s here, especially since she’s readying to travel from coast to coast to audition for musical theater college programs.

A year or so ago we enjoyed the work of documentary film makers Adam Del Deo and James D. Stearn, who shot more than 500 hours of footage as auditions and casting were underway in New York for the 2006 Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line.”

The resulting film — titled “Every Little Step” — presents a singular glimpse into the rigors of musical theater training and performance. We enjoyed seeing it at the Harkins Camelview 5 near our home, which often features films you can’t easily find in mainstream movie theaters.

Karley Willocks plays "Maggie" in "A Chorus Line" in the Valley through Jan 16

“A Chorus Line” originally opened on Broadway in 1975, and was the longest-running musical in Broadway history until eclipsed by “Cats.” Personally, I favor dancers in leotards over cats who sing and dance — but that’s just me.

The book for “A Chorus Line” was written by James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante. Edward Kleban wrote the lyrics and Marvin Hamlisch composed the music. It’s a “must see” musical for musical theater aficionados — and those who love them.

“It’s really a musical about us,” shares dancer and actress Karley Willocks — who performs the role of Maggie in the touring production now on Valley stages. She’s been dancing since her parents enrolled in her tap and ballet classes at the age of three.

Willocks auditioned for her first theater role when she was eight years old, following the lead of her best friend at the time. Her friend wasn’t cast, but Willocks landed the role of orphan “Duffy” in the musical “Annie.”

She spent many years performing with “The Talent Machine” in Annapolis, Maryland — where her favorite shows included “Brigadoon,” “Anything Goes,” and “Pippin.” Willocks also did high school theater before entering the musical theatre program at Shenandoah University in Virginia, where she earned a B.F.A.

Willocks first performed the role of Maggie in a Tennessee production of “A Chorus Line” the summer right after she graduated. “I grew up listening to the soundtrack,” she recalls — and had also seen the movie.

She recommends the musical for anyone whose life is touched by dance or theater — including families with budding performers in their midst. But “A Chorus Line” also appeals to a wider audience.

“It helps to know that these are real stories or real dancers in the ’70s,” reflects Willocks. For her, “A Chrous Line” is about “putting yourself out there — no matter what it takes.”

– Lynn

Note: Watch for a future post offering Willocks’ insights into the college theater program audition process — plus tips from Halley Shefler of The Arts Edge, which offers educational consulting for visual and performing arts students

Coming up: Art-related resources for bullying prevention

Update: Click here to read part two of my interview with Karley Willocks, and to read a “mini-review” of “A Chorus Line” by Mala Blomquist of Raising Arizona Kids magazine.

Cats v. dogs, theater style

There are cat people, and there are dog people. 

The differences might make for an amusing Broadway show, but for now we have to settle for productions that feature one species or the other (the pets, not their people). 

Scene from "Seussical"-Photo by Sara Krulwich appeared in "The New York Times"

There’s “Cats” from composer Andrew Lloyd Webber—based on poet T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” I never got this one, despite being a cat-lover. 

There’s “Seussical” from Flaherty and Ahrens, a 2000 Broadway musical based on the works of children’s author Dr. Seuss. Who doesn’t love the song “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think?” 

And there’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” a Tennessee Williams play that has nothing to do with cats, but still strikes my fancy. 

For dog lovers, you’ve got “Annie”–featuring the lovable mutt “Sandy”–which will soon enjoy another Broadway revival.

There’s “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” with everyone’s favorite: “Snoopy.” You gotta love a canine who sits atop his doghouse banging away at a Smith Corona

If you’re not old enough to know what that is, you aren’t old enough to see the shows I’ll be previewing after another couple of paragraphs.

I should confess at this point to being more of a cat person, though I try to be open minded. I grew up enjoying the companionship of both.

Scene from the musical "Annie"

My first pet was actually a little chihuahua named “Nikitita” (no relation to ABBA’s “Chiquitita”) who broke my heart by running away one night during a fierce Colorado thunderstorm. 

I was raised by a single mother who always felt safer with dogs in the house (though our Doberman was milder than milk toast). 

Still, I’ve never gotten the hang of enjoying another creature licking my face. Cats lick themselves. That I can live with. 

If there’s a local theater company dedicated to dogs, I have yet to discover it. (Those of you who find your minds racing with tacky humor at this point need a good lick in the face.) 

Scene from the musical "Cats"

But I so love the alternative theater folks whose name seems a bit of an homage to those fabulous felines. 

It’s Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe, performing at the space once occupied by Childsplay, another Tempe titan of irresistible theater. 

While Childsplay delivers mostly “G-rated” fare, Stray Cat has more of an “R-rated” feel. 

You won’t find anything outrageously controversial in Childsplay’s 2010-2011 season, which includes “Go, Dog. Go!” based on the books by P.D. Eastman. 

Scene from "Reasons to be Pretty"-Photo from "The New York Times"

But Stray Cat Theatre, home of artistic director Ron May, is another story… 

Stray Cat’s ninth season opens with Neil Labute’s “Reasons to be Pretty” directed by April Miller. The show (Sept. 24-Oct. 9) is “a love story about the near impossibility of love.” I can’t wait to see Greg and his girlfriend Steph go at it after he casually mentions a few of her physical imperfections. 

Next up is Enrique Urueta’s “Learn to be Latina” directed by Ron May. At this point, I’d settle for merely learning to speak Spanish. The show (Dec. 3-18) is a comedic look at serious issues of cultural identity and making it in the music business. I’m eager to witness pop singer Hanan’s attempt to transform herself from Lebanese to Latina! 

Stray Cat’s first production of 2011 will be Steve Yockey’s “Octopus,” also directed by Ron May. How terribly thoughtful of them to choose something in keeping with my animal theme. Isn’t it just like a cat to do it’s own thing while leading the humans to believe it was all their idea? This baby (March 25-April 9) deals with the fallout of group sex, so leave the kittens at home if you go there. 

"Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party" at SF Playhouse-Photo by Zabrina Tipton

Finally, there’s Aaron Loeb’s “Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party” directed by Ron May—who clearly takes pride in being a provocateur par excellence. This piece (no pun intended) closes out Stray Cat’s 2010-2011 season with a bang (May 20-June 11). It features the “trial of the century” in which Lincoln’s teacher faces charges of asking whether Lincoln might have been gay. I’m not sure how you get from courtroom drama to dance party, but have no doubts that May will pull it off and more. 

For those of you who prefer tamer fare, I’ll offer a future post on the 2010-2011 Childsplay season. I have to wonder, though, whether their choice of “Go, Dog. Go!” reveals a clear canine bias… 

–Lynn