Cats: Broadways smash hit musical comes to Karen

BD cooper

Cooper Rust, artistic director and co-founder of Dance Centre Kenya which is staging the Cats musical play at the Brookhouse School.

Photo credit: File | Pool

Kenyan audiences have been enchanted by the award-winning musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber ever since the 1970’s when Jesus Christ Superstar first hit the boards at the Donovan Maule Theatre.

Since then, the JCS classic has been staged everywhere from secondary schools and churches to the Kenya National Theatre and Braeburn Theatre, Gitanga where we most recently saw another Lloyd Webber classic, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat which was staged by Braeburn school just a few months ago.

The BDLife first saw Jesus Christ Superstar at the now defunct Donovan Maule Theatre in the 1980s. It was also the premiere production of the Nairobi Performing Arts Studio in 2018.

But nobody’s been ambitious enough, until now, to present us with the musical production inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poetry book entitled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It’s called Cats and it was a smash hit on Broadway and The West End of London.

The Nobel Prize-winning poet had originally written his cats poetry especially for his God-children. But children are not the only cat-lovers who have contributed to the show’s popularity. There are adults all over the world (be they cat owners or not) who have watched the show and read Eliot’s illustrated poetry, often in translation.

The book came out in 1939 and was made famous after Lloyd Webber came out with his musical interpretation of it, calling it Cats in 1981. It quickly made its way to Broadway and the West End of London where it was a smash hit more popular than nearly all 31 of Lloyd Webber’s other musicals (apart from Joseph, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and Phantom of the Opera).

Now it’s finally opening in Nairobi out at Brookhouse School in Karen from Friday, June 7th through Sunday, June 9th.

Cooper Rust and her team at Dance Centre Kenya (DCK) have been working for months to prepare a production that not only features non-stop dancing by the DCK troupe, including 63 dancers ranging in age from 6 to 50. They will also be dressed up as cats, from their heads and faces to their tails and toes.

“All of our costumes have been painted by local artists,” says Cooper Rust, Cats’ artistic director, producer, and co-founder of DCK back in 2015. She was speaking in an exclusive interview to the BDLife a few days before the musical’s opening day. She added that Cats’ head-gear, including the whiskers and upright ears were all made locally. And even the cat caps that the little ones will wear are hand-crafted. The same is true of the cat masks.

And even the cat caps which the little ones will wear were created by friends of DCK. But it’s the catsy face paintings of everyone in the cast, that will add 100 percent cat credibility to the performers and their performance over the weekend.

Having such a large cast, Cooper has gotten tremendous support from her assistant directors Caroline Slot who has been with DCK practically from its inception in 2015 and May Ombara who initially came to DCK as a voice coach for Oliver but will now also play Grizabella this weekend.

Cats is the second major musical that DCK has produced. “We’ll be producing one musical every year,” promised Cooper. “We feel it’s important for our students to expand their versatility and range of artistic expression,” she added.

DCK already has classes in musical theatre, but Oliver was its first application of the learning that some students in the show have already received. And ballet itself is filled with theatrical expression, but it’s not the same since ballet, which is DCK’s specialty, focuses more specifically on the dance.

Musical theatre pays greater attention to the story, adding both songs and dance aimed at taking the storyline forward. It’s a subtle difference, but it makes a lot of sense for DCK graduates to have a broad repertoire of dance when they complete the DCK course. But that doesn’t come until after students are examined and pass rigorous tests administered by judges from the Royal Academy of Dance in UK.

A year ago when DCK staged their first musical, Oliver, they received awards at the Kenya Theatre Awards for performances by John Sibi Okumu as Fagin and Abdoulaye Diabete as Oliver.

The musical generally met with wide ranging approval, especially as all the music was live, as it will be this weekend when the DCK Orchestra takes on Lloyd Webber’s musical score and is professionally conducted under the baton of Levi Wataka.

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