This ‘Cats’ Adaptation Has the Kids Singing

Heather Biddle, the theater director at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas, wanted to put on a production of “Cats” for so long it became something of a comedy bit.

Back in August 2020, following months of the pandemic shutdown and facing a year of remote learning, her students made commemorative T-shirts that read “At least we didn’t do ‘Cats.’”

That all changed this month, when Biddle finally got her wish.

J.J. Pearce High School students during a rehearsal. Many of them mostly knew the show in the context of its ill-fated 2019 cinematic adaptation.Credit…Eli Durst for The New York Times

She staged one of the country’s first productions of “Cats: Young Actors Edition,” a one-hour version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit 1981 musical, adapted by iTheatrics for Concord Theatricals, and released to schools across North America last fall. And as Biddle had expected, her students — many of whom mostly knew the show in the context of its ill-fated 2019 cinematic adaptation — came around to it.

“I text Biddle all the time, ‘I’m no longer a ‘Cats’ hater!’” Ainsley Ross, a senior and the production’s musical director, said during a break from rehearsals on May 10. “Now that I’m working on it, I love it so much.”

Ginger Johnson, as Munkustrap, during a break from the dress rehearsal.Credit…Eli Durst for The New York Times

At a dress rehearsal inside the school’s auditorium three days before the show opened, the nervous energy was palpable. Dozens of teenagers ran about in scruffy bodysuits that had been hand painted by fellow students and Biddle.

Spencer Van Goor, a sophomore who played Rum Tum Tugger, purred “Hello, gorgeous” to a teased out wig as he picked it up off the stage and put it on his head. “I’ve wanted to do this show for nine years now,” the 15-year-old said. “I really like the dance and the music; it’s exotic and weird.”

Sophie Pong, a Dallas high school senior who was interning with Heather Biddle, applying makeup to Isabella Denissen, a junior who played Demeter.Credit…Eli Durst for The New York Times

Amelia Pinney, a junior who not only took on the dance-heavy role of Bombalurina but also choreographed the entire show, moved in tandem with Isabella Denissen, a junior who played Demeter. They were as attached at the hip as their two characters would be throughout the show.

“It’s mesmerizing. It’s so different from any other show that’s been done,” Pinney said wistfully.

Zoe Lehman was cast as Mr. Mistoffelees.Credit…Eli Durst for The New York TimesPinney, as Bombalurina, choreographed the show.Credit…Eli Durst for The New York Times

In the greenroom, students paced excitedly as they waited to get made up as cats. “You look like a sleep paralysis demon,” one actor told another, which got a laugh from the larger group. The students practiced their dance moves, twirling their hands, spinning their bodies, and kicking up pointed toes. They manically discussed their other favorite musicals. They all agreed that Hailey Gibson, a sophomore cast as Grizabella, was going to blow everyone away with her rendition of “Memory.”

Concord Theatricals, the licensing house that represents the stage licensing rights to the Andrew Lloyd Webber catalog in North America, has long made 60-minute, kid-friendly versions of other stage works in its collection, such as Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” and Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” which J.J. Pearce students performed last fall.

“I think people were shocked at how much they loved the show,” said Biddle, the theater director at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas.Credit…Eli Durst for The New York Times

“These editions do hundreds of performances a year; they are a gateway to theater,” said Imogen Lloyd Webber, a daughter of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Concord’s senior vice president of communications.

When the company decided to adapt Lloyd Webber’s work for younger performers and audiences, “Cats” was an obvious first choice. “It’s an ensemble show,” Imogen Lloyd Webber said. “Everybody’s got a part. Everybody can do a number. You can go mad with the costumes and the sets and the choreography.”

The students meditated before the dress rehearsal.Credit…Eli Durst for The New York Times

“And if you think about it, T.S. Eliot’s ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ was originally a children’s poem,” she said, referring to the playful collection of poetry that makes up most of the musical’s book. “It made sense. Obviously, internally we’ve been calling it ‘Kittens’.”

Final adjustments: Ava Johnson, as Victoria the White Cat, helping Uzo Bender, as Admetus, with his wig.Credit…Eli Durst for The New York Times

Van Goor, who was one of 32 students to perform in the production (five others contributed technical support), also appreciated that “Cats” is a true ensemble. “Technically everyone gets their own little feature,” he said. Though largely a plotless extravaganza, the musical is set in a junkyard where a group of so-called Jellicle cats have gathered for an annual celebration.

“Cats: Young Actors Edition,” which is transposed in higher keys that are better suited for younger voices, was made with middle-school performers in mind. But Biddle really wanted it for her high schoolers. Most of them have worked with Biddle since they were 12 or 13, participating in her popular all-ages school summer program.

The students’ parents were allowed to watch the final dress rehearsal on May 12.Credit…Eli Durst for The New York Times

The show was J.J. Pearce’s first production without any pandemic precautions, like limited seating, masked performers or a masked audience. Three days after the rehearsal, there was still a vibrant energy among the students at their 2 p.m. show on Friday, which had been arranged not only for the performers’ high school classmates but also for local middle schoolers who were bused over after taking their annual standardized tests. Preteens and teenagers may have a reputation for not paying close attention at school-sponsored events, but the auditorium was silent when the descending riff of the musical’s opening number, “Prologue: Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” began.

As the show went on, Biddle’s performers were not the only ones coming around to the idea of “Cats.” The audience seemed just as entranced by the musical, which is equal parts spooky, silly and sentimental. Though some momentary loud shuffling occurred when the period bell rang, dozens of students remained rapt in their seats, cheering along to Van Goor’s provocative performance of “The Rum Tum Tugger” and when Pinney and others did back flips and handsprings onstage.

Biddle said she was thrilled to have converted “a whole new group of ‘Cats’ lovers.”Credit…Eli Durst for The New York Times

When the house lights rose after the performance, the high school students who had been in the audience ran backstage to congratulate their friends.

And the performers? They were basking in the moment, thrilled that they had pulled off the show. They’d done “Cats”! And they would do it again that evening and the next day.

When asked if this production was everything she hoped it would be, Biddle replied, without a moment’s hesitation: “I think people were shocked at how much they loved the show. It was worth the wait and I love that we converted a whole new group of ‘Cats’ lovers. ‘Cats’ now and forever!”