The next couple of weekends will see the opening of two of the most anticipated productions of the season. The new partnership between the Barksdale Theatre and the Steward School will bear its first fruit with "Grease," bowing Friday at Steward's Cramer Center. Then next Thursday the first homegrown production of "Cats" will light up the stage at Maggie Walker Governor's School, thanks to the School for the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC).
Both shows are the final products of summer educational programs and will primarily star teenagers. But if you expect something like your local high-school musical, you'll be surprised.
"When you say you are going to do 'Cats,' people kind of roll their eyes," says Jennie Brown, executive director of SPARC. "They think it's going to be cute children wearing cardboard cats' ears."
One look at preliminary pictures from SPARC's production and it's clear this is no puffed-up puppet show. The costumes rented from the Fullerton Civic Light Opera in California are extravagantly detailed and colorful, with large, fluffy headpieces. No cardboard in sight. The heavy makeup by Maura Lynch Cravey boldly delineates feline characteristics, transforming the young actors' faces. As it did in the Broadway production, the set design will feature junkyard items supersized to appear as they would to a cat. "This year marks our 25th anniversary," Brown says. "People expect you are going to do something bigger and better to celebrate."
The scale of the production comes with an accompanying increase in cost: The tab for "Cats" will run around $70,000, 50 percent more than the typical budget for SPARC's summer show. Knowing the challenges posed by the show, SPARC began planning early, as soon as last summer's production closed. The nonprofit was able to secure significant support from Dominion Resources as well as another unexpected source.
"We've stayed in touch with [Mechanicsville pop star] Jason Mraz since he played the lead in our production of 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat' in 1990," Brown says. "When he learned that we were planning to do 'Cats,' he said, 'Send me a request.'" A check from Mraz arrived the next week, enabling SPARC to waive the tuition it usually charges students who take part in their summer program.
These students will be the cream of the local crop, says director Tom Width, a veteran of 10 previous SPARC productions. "Acting talent or a great singing voice aren't enough for this show; the dance demands are huge," he says. "None of these cats just sit around."
The SPARC cast ranges from 13 to 22 years old the perfect age to tackle such an ambitious show, Width says: "They just have much better brains than us grown-ups. They learn so fast and work so hard." Working with eager teenagers has necessitated some focus on safety, however. "We need them to stay in good health," Brown says. "One of the mandates was 'no skateboarding!'"
Chase Kniffen, the director of "Grease," echoes some of Width's sentiments. He says his cast of 28 high school students "has jumped right in. They're very energetic and want to work hard to put on an excellent show."
One of Kniffen's biggest challenges has been getting modern teenagers to get into the 1950s mode that's vital to making the show work. "I've talked a lot with the cast about how being high-schoolers is their biggest strength in terms of understanding their characters," Kniffen says. "But being high-schoolers now could be their biggest weakness. We've worked hard to get the right attitude out of them and capture a real sense of the time period."
The Barksdale/Steward School partnership was a natural outgrowth of the school's visiting artist series, headmaster Ken Seward says: "With this program, students can establish a working relationship that is different than teacher-student; more like master-apprentice."
Kniffen has been impressed with the cast's eagerness: "I ask them to do things and it just happens. There's no ego involved."
"Grease" will take advantage of one of the newest and most sophisticated performance spaces in Central Virginia, the $10 million Paul R. Cramer Center for the Arts. Kniffen calls the center's 500-seat proscenium stage "absolutely stunning; it really has the feel of a Broadway theater." After "Grease" closes, the theater will host Barksdale's "Beehive," opening Aug. 13, an appropriate production to end a season in which stages all over town have been buzzing with activity. S
"Grease" runs at the Cramer Center for the Arts, 11600 Gayton Road, July 21-23 and July 28-30. Tickets are $14. Call 344-8040 or go to www.barksdalerichmond.org.
"Cats" has six performances during the weekend of July 27-30 at Maggie Walker's Governor's School, 1000 N. Lombardy. Tickets are $15. Call 794-6700 or go to www.ticketstobuy.com.