The Manatee Players' 2015-16 season got off to a spectacular start Thursday. The company's staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats" is a marvel.
It's a demanding show on every level -- many of the songs are difficult to sing, the costumes and makeup are iconic and have to be creatively designed and meticulously executed, and the set, lights and sound are complex. There's no way no take shortcuts around any of those challenges and give audiences anything close to the kind of experience they expect from the show and from a Manatee Players musical.
Add in that almost every member of the very large cast has to sing well, dance superbly and act at least passably, and "Cats" has to be a daunting project for even a professional company. And the fact that almost everyone who wants to see "Cats" has seen at least one Broadway or national tour production makes expectations very high.
All of that makes it even more impressive that director/choreographer DeWayne Barrett, the entire cast and the creative and technical teams deliver so much more than we have any reason to expect.
"Cats," as almost everyone who cares even a little bit must know, has music by Webber and lyrics mostly by T.S. Eliot. It's based on a collection of Eliot's whimsical feline poems for children.
There's an attempt at a through-story, but essentially "Cats" is a series of song-and-dance numbers.
If there's one performance element that stands out in this production, it's the dancing. Barrett's choreography is delightful, and that dozens of volunteer performers could learn and master the difficult moves in a few weeks of rehearsals is astounding. But the moves are close to impeccable.
It's unfair to single out performers from such a fine cast, but among the ones who leave an impression are Manatee Players regulars Brian Chunn, who plays Gus, the theater cat (who transforms into Growltiger in a fantasy sequence), and Tahlia Joanna Byers, who commands attention even in her somewhat small role as Victoria. Christina Capeheart, an audience favorite as Grizabella, delivered an emotional interpretation of "Memory," the show's most familiar song (though far from its best).
The junkyard set by Donna Buckalter and Bill Booth (in his last show for Manatee Players after many years with the company), the costumes by Becky Evans, the musical direction by Phyllis Gessler and the lights by Joseph P. Oshry are all beyond impressive.
If you're looking for an element of the show to take issue with, you could talk about the canned backing music. You're there to see a live performance, and it's reasonable to expect live music. But in this case, recorded music was the only reasonable option. The people who license "Cats" require that theater companies either buy their recorded music or use a very large orchestra that would be beyond the budget of even most professional companies.
And the canned music sounds pretty good.
So do the voices, thanks in part to enhancements to the sound quality of Stone Hall that have been completed just in the past few days.
A lot of audience members have griped about muddy sound in the space that often made lyrics difficult to understand. Look up toward the ceiling now and you'll see black curtains hanging, and look toward the back wall and you'll see red panels that have been installed. They're all designed to deaden the sound, and, at least based on this one show, the results seem dramatic. Every one of Eliot's delightful words was intelligible.
In her pre-show welcoming speech to the audience, Manatee Performing Arts Center executive director Janene Amick called attention to improvements to hall's sound and got a hearty round of applause.
Details: Through Aug. 30, Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $27-$37. Information: 941-748-5875, manateeperformingartscenter.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.