Pittsburgh plays host to a group of jellicle ‘Cats’

By Larissa Gula


Jan. 26-31

Benedum Center

$21 – $53

(412) 456-6666 or at pgharts.org

Pitt Arts… “Cats”

Jan. 26-31

Benedum Center

$21 – $53

(412) 456-6666 or at pgharts.org

Pitt Arts Prices: $27.50 – $45.25. Purchase in the Pitt Arts office.

In the animal kingdom, cats are known for their sassy yet nonchalant demeanors. On stage, at least in their namesake musical, they’re known for bombastic love ballads, heavy makeup and spectacular dancing.

The award-winning musical “Cats” sprouted from a small hit-or-miss idea based on the poems in T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats“. Its Broadway run lasted 15 years, and the musical has toured the country for 26 years.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” is a surreal show. The plot is not clearly defined, though it basically follows the misadventures of a group of stray felines and fills the stage with complex choreography taking place on a set made to look like a junkyard.

This year’s cast includes Point Park graduate Chris Mackenthun. He plays the role of a magical, young and frisky black-and-white cat named Mr. Mistoffelees. Though the behind-the-scenes work put into the show is grueling, Mackenthun described “Cats” as a fun production.

“It’s completely out of the box,” Mackenthun said. “Nobody knew what ‘Cats’ was going to be when it came on the scene. They went with it and said, ‘This is a magical show.’”

“Cats” also reaches audiences of all ages as a family-friendly show — it’s the show parents take their kids to see because they saw it and loved it, according to Mackenthun.

“There’s nothing risqué, there’s nothing questionable,” he said. “I think people have just fallen in love with the magic of the show because it is so crazy.”

Audiences are almost required to have the ability to go along with what is on stage, otherwise risking the inability to fully appreciate the show.

“I think kids are more willing to go with you on it — OK, you’re a cat, I can pretend that. And I also think adults are also willing to suspend the belief,” he said. “I guess if they aren’t willing, then we haven’t done our job.”

The rehearsal process combines singing with stepping correctly and following the choreography of the show, which is one of the most convincing aspects in a show being entirely about cats.

“The show is designed and choreographed and directed to make it, ‘What do you mean, you don’t think I’m a cat?’” he said.

“All movement shows you are a cat, and you are better than the audience,” he said. “It’s really magical when the audience does suspend all belief, sits back, and has a good time, because I know we feel that [on stage].”

“There’s this crazy set and quirky movement that just facilitates the illusion just that much more,” he said. “I think that most of the time the audience is willing to suspend belief and say, ‘OK. This is a group of cats.’”

Mackenthun graduated from Point Park in 2005 with a degree in ballet and a clear view of his career goals.

“I always knew I wanted to do musicals and musical theater, and I discovered I had a talent for dance,” he said. “So I decided I needed to give it a try because I could always do musical theater, but I couldn’t always be a principal dancer at 70 years old.”

Two years after graduating, he accidentally stumbled into the role of a magical black cat. He auditioned for two shows in one day and obtained a role in “Cats.” But it’s not an easy job.

All tours of “Cats” travel with a physical therapist to help take care of the dancers and their bodies. Injuries are common, according to Mackenthun.

“It’s live theater, so you never know what’s going to happen,” he said.”

The basic challenges of — performing properly after traveling, stage setup, transitioning to the new stage — are part of the job, although not always easy tasks.

Mackenthun expressed enthusiasm to be returning to Pittsburgh after five years.

“There’s so much theater in Pittsburgh,” he said. “It’s just growing, and I can’t wait to see what it’s growing into. Everybody just loves going to theater.”