Mention “Cats” — as in the Tony-winning Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that commandeered Broadway for 18 years — and the responses will range from, “My favorite musical ever!” to “Lord, please don’t make me endure that schmaltz.”
It’s one of the most popular shows to inhabit London’s West End (the original ran from 1981 to 2002 with revivals in 2014-15) and Broadway (1982-2000 with a revival in 2016), and spawned the iconic ballad, “Memory.” Performed late in the second act by the formerly glamorous, now shabby and forgotten cat, Grizabella, the song is what “Defying Gravity” is to “Wicked,” what “Rose’s Turn” is to “Gypsy.” It’s the defining moment of the musical and guaranteed showstopper.
Based on the T.S. Eliot book, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the show centers on a group of cats — known as the Jellicles — who make their case to the grand poobah kitty, Old Deuteronomy, to be sent to the Heaviside Layer and return to a new life.
But who cares about the plot when there are lithe dancers with whiskers and in striped spandex popping up in the aisles and prowling the stage?
Keri René Fuller inhabits the prestigious role of Grizabella in the new North American tour of the musical, which plays the Fox Theatre Aug. 6-11. While she’s only 26 — not quite the wizened outcast portrayed in the 1982 original by the great Betty Buckley — the Oklahoma native who recently performed in Broadway’s “Waitress” clearly possesses the vocal chops to handle the role.
Calling from a “Cats” tour stop in Chicago, the delightful Fuller talked to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Kaedy Kiely of The River 97.1 FM about inhabiting Grizabella, the changes made to this production and what she thinks of the trailer for the star-loaded “Cats” movie, coming Dec. 20.
Q: Was Grizabella always the role you wanted or did it just turn out that way?
A: I grew up watching the (1998) film on a VHS tape, and I never thought I’d play her because she had always been portrayed as so much older. And then my agent called me and said the national tour wanted to see me as Grizabella. I genuinely laughed out loud because I had just turned 26. I’m so fortunate because there are so many iconic roles out there, and I get to play one of them.
Q: Grizabella is the outcast cat who has seen better days, but that also means there’s so much more humanity there. Does that make her more interesting to play?
A: One hundred percent. Without Grizabella, there isn’t a story of redemption. I feel like she’s the most human-like cat among all of them. I don’t have the stance of a typical Grizabella of an older person faded out of glamour, but we all know the feeling of being outcasts or not being part of a family.
Q: What goes through your mind when you have to come out to sing “Memory,” one of the most revered songs in Broadway history?
A: It’s terrifying! Every night I’m still nervous, and we’re 190-something performances in. I want to do it justice because these people have been waiting the entire show to hear this song. People at the stage door are grandparents or parents bringing their kids to see “Cats” for the first time, and you want to make sure it’s memorable.
Q: This tour has new choreography and lighting and some other tweaks. Will someone who has been part of the “Cats” fan club notice the changes?
A: I think you’ll totally recognize it. (“Hamilton” Tony-winner) Andy Blankenbuehler did such an amazing job with fresh choreography. It’s the same “Cats” that everyone knows and loves, but for a 2019 audience.
Q: What do you think of the trailer for the “Cats” movie?
A: I am so excited to see it; I think it is going to be an experience. It is a very different production. It’s told from the point of view of Victoria the White Cat. The faces scare me a little because they’re human faces on cat bodies. But I do think that once you’re in the theatre and watching, it’s going to seem normal after a minute. Look at the people they have playing these characters — Judi Dench, Idris Elba. I have to say I would be weirded-out by a female Old Deuteronomy…unless it was Judi Dench.
Q: You’ll probably be paying extra attention to Jennifer Hudson (who plays Grizabella in the film), though her voice seemed a little wobbly by her standards in the snippet we’ve seen.
A: I do love Jennifer Hudson. When you’re singing the song, you’re either approaching it as a vocalist or an actor, and I think she was directed to approach it strictly from an acting standpoint. And since it’s Grizabella’s lowest point in the show (when she sings “Memory”), I can understand that direction. But personally, I prefer it somewhere in the middle ground.
7:30 p.m. Aug. 6-8; 8 p.m. Aug. 9; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Aug. 10; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Aug. 11. $35-$145.25. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org.
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