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'CATS' lands on local stage

Long-running musical based on poetry by T.S. Eliot comes to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

January 12, 2012|By Candice Baker
  • Louie Napoleon co-stars as Skimbleshanks the orange tabby in "Cats" at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Louie Napoleon co-stars as Skimbleshanks the orange… (Joan Marcus, Segerstrom…)

"He would watch you without winking/And he saw what you were thinking/And it's certain that he didn't approve/Of hilarity and riot/So that folk were very quiet/When Skimble was about and on the move."

— "Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat"

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Now in its 31st year, Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical "CATS" has seen more than its share of nine lives.

Performed across several continents, "CATS" got its start when Lloyd Webber picked up a copy of T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" in an airport bookshop. From that inauspicious beginning, the show has become one of the longest running musicals in history.

Far from a simple song-and-dance revue, "CATS" — based on Eliot's 1930s poetry about the lives, aspirations and names of the "Jellicle" cats humans see every day but don't really know — takes a witty, adroit tone, playing with literary and everyday history as it asks humans:

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"Can you ride on a broomstick to places far distant?/Familiar with candle, with book and with bell?/Were you Whittington's friend? The Pied Piper's assistant?/Have you been an alumnus of heaven or hell?"

But one doesn't have to be a fan of British fairy tales to appreciate the show, coming to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts next week.

"It transcends language; I think a lot of people do end up getting it by the end," said cast member Louie Napoleon, who plays the fastidious cat Skimbleshanks. He said that multiple viewings can elicit new discoveries in the show, in which each "starring" cat is given a showcase to perform in hopes of going to the Heaviside Layer (named after an actual level of Earth's ionosphere) and being reborn. The cats range from pranksters to matrons to a former stage actor.

"I think the show is so diverse in its range of characters," Napoleon said. "Initially, when anyone sees the show, it's a little overwhelming at first. The characters are right there in your face, and they know that you're there; there's no fourth wall."

In fact, the performers are famous for "playing" with their audiences by look and gesture.

Napoleon's Skimbleshanks is an orange cat whose vocation is to travel the midnight mail train from London to Scotland, ensuring the safety and comfort of all the humans aboard.

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