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LIGHTNING REVIEW: Race to the fee line to see 'Cats'

The cast of 'Cats,' performed at the Playhouse Downtown. The cast of 'Cats,' performed at the Playhouse Downtown.

Here is what I say about "Cats."

Go see it and take a child with you.
It is fine for grownups — more than fine. It is the best dance show of the season, maybe the most fun and varied dance exposition ever put on by the Flat Rock Playhouse. And it is more than that. The Playhouse creative folks have aimed for the sky again, as they did with "Les Miserables" and "Evita," and the young actors and dancers have rewarded the theater patrons with a spectacle that exceeds what you might think possible in the Playhouse Downtown space.

It is a moving show, it is a happy show, it is an entertaining show, it is a variety show and it features a performance of "Memory" — by 21-year-old Hannah Rose de Flumeri — that's as good as any you'll hear on the Broadway or London stage.

I say bring a child because this is the best introduction to the performing arts I can imagine. Take a child, 10 or so and up, and sit him or her down in a seat (there is really no bad seat in the house; the cats are intimately close even if you're in the next to last row, as I was on Friday night). Let the magic happen. If you don't have a boy or girl of your own, borrow one, or grab one off the skateboard park or the soccer field and sit it down for the wonderful and happy "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats," the wise "Naming of the Cats," the solemn "Grizabella," the fun "Railway Cat" and the sensational "Mr. Mistoffelees."

Based on the poems of T.S. Eliot in "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber opened in London in 1981. It ran for 21 years in London and 18 years on Broadway, the second longest-running show on Broadway.
Choreographer Jennifer Jancuska has outdone herself in creative use of the small three-sided space for a show of this breadth. The choreographer as well for "Cotton Patch Gospel," "Evita" and "Les Miz," Jancuska has quite the portfolio for the summer of 2013. She notes in the playbill that the "competitive yet communal presentation of each cat ... afforded the opportunity to explore movement more diverse in technique than I had ever managed." Translation: This "Cats" offers a little bit of everything, from ballet to tap.

Jancuska's direction of the "Macavity Fight" gives us a moving dog pile. The dancers' creation of the rail car is a fun metamorphosis to watch — smoothly led by dance captain Willie Dee as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat.

Along with Jancuska and director Lisa K. Bryant, the creative maestros are lighting designer Nicholas Kunstle and scenic designer James W. Johnson, unseen hands who have turned the space into the steelyard home for 18 cats — eight boys and eight girls — plus Old Deuteronomy (played with appropriate gravitas by Adam Richardson) and the aforementioned Miss de Flumeri as Grizabella.
If the sound crew could adjust the balance by stepping up the vocal over the music the show would be better still — for another amazing thing about the dancers is that they're good singers, too. Kudos to music director Eric Fotre Leach for  blending a recorded sound track for this production and for whipping the young vocalists into shape for the show.

Made up mostly of dancers cast in New York, the show also features East Henderson High School junior Emily Holbert as Electra and longtime YouTheatre performer Molly Bailey as Pouncival.

Among the many highlights is "Mr. Mistoffelees," a featured solo by Brian Gephart, a native of Kernersville who graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts and has performed with the Joffrey Ballet. ("He can creep through the tiniest crack/He can walk on the narrowest rail.")
The audience lucky enough to see this performance of "Cats" might very well be singing a song as they exit.
Oh! Well I never! Was there ever
A cat so clever as magical Mr. Mistoffelees!
My hope, as I say, is that many children and grownups will attend the show, for seldom have we seen a performance as clever and magical as "Cats" at the Playhouse Downtown.

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"Cats" runs through Oct. 6 at the Playhouse Downtown. Performances are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. All tickets are $40. For tickets call 828-693-0731 or 866-732-8008 go to