Youngstown Playhouse presents Broadway blockbuster Theater for ‘Cats’ lovers



Directing the Youngstown Playhouse’s production of “Cats” has been a surprising experience for David Jendre.

First, Jendre never expected to attract such a youthful cast to the musical that premiered on Broadway in 1982.

Second, after delving into it, he has discovered that he actually likes the show.

“Cats” is the season opener of the Youngstown Playhouse’s 2015-16 season. Its seven-performance run begins Friday.

The Playhouse has made a habit of beginning the year with a blockbuster Broadway musical, with Jendre as director.

“How do you top ‘Chicago’ or ‘A Chorus Line’? You put on ‘Cats,’” he said, referring to the previous season-openers he directed at the Playhouse. “You do ‘Cats.’”

The problem – at first – was that Jendre was never a big “Cats” lover and had never directed it before.

“I always shied away from it,” he said, explaining, “I was a ‘Chorus Line’ kid. I am from that era. We looked down our noses at ‘Cats’ and were furious when it beat our [Broadway] run. It’s choreography is derivative of ‘Chorus Line.’”

To his surprise, he ended up liking it.

“I got to the point where it’s like, ‘OK, I understand why it was so popular’ and I appreciate it. I can see why it works so well. It has so many thematic elements, like redemption and acceptance. There is something for everybody in it.”

The third-longest running show in Broadway history, “Cats” is the creation of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Trevor Nunn, and is based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”

The musical tells the story of a tribe of cats called the Jellicles and the night they decide which cat will ascend to another level of existence and come back to a new life.

The Playhouse production attracted a lot of interest among young actors, which Jendre also didn’t expect.

“I had a lot of kids at audition for this one, more than normal, and that surprised me because I didn’t expect the younger ones to be interested,” he said. “But they knew all about it, and that’s a good thing. I got the cream of the crop kids. I was looking for dancing and singing ability, and how easily they would fit into a group, because I needed a cohesive group. We turned into a close-knit company. We started with the major dances of the show, and they are physically strenuous, but they all seemed to get the idea right away. They were on top of things from the very beginning. They understood when I talked about being feline, they knew what to do with their bodies. I was kind of amazed.”

The cast also includes some theater veterans, including Joshua Green, Brandy Johanntges (who, as Grizabella sings the signature number “Memory”), Alan McCreary and Jendre himself.

The other felines include Bryan Bennett, Zachery Bernat, Darian Shawn Brogdon, Janerall Brown, James Major Burns, Kaitlin Carson, Sarah Demetruk, Destiny Hughes, Snezana Jelic, Sabryna Johnson, Kiara Jones, Anthony “Coot” Madison, Jacob Butler Mull, Emily Pasquale, Kathleen C. Sanfrey, Isaiah Shelton, Emelia Sherin, Trevail Smith, Terre A. Snead and Marckese Williams.

Jendre is also pleased with the set and the costumes.

“[The set] was a huge junkyard, originally,” said Jendre. “But Leslie Brown, our set designer, asked me for my take, and I said the more I read it, it’s just such a fantasy land. I said, ‘Let’s go with the junkyard motif because it works.’ But we tried to find a balance between a whimsical fantasy land and a junkyard. We made a magical kind of junkyard.”

Therese Pitzulo recreated the original costumes, and Candace LaRocca recreated the original wig design. Katherine Garlick handles the extensive makeup duties.

“I can’t say enough about how wonderful, incredible, the cast looks,” said Jendre.

Faculty and students from Youngstown State University also are helping with the feline makeup.

Jendre and Emily Pasquale direct and choreograph the production, with an assist by Joshua William Green. Nancy Wolfgang serves as musical director. Jessica Joerndt, Jacinda Madison and Abby Witherstine are additional vocalists on the production.