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Purr-fect casting: 5 La Jolla ‘kittens’ appear in ‘CATS’ at Lyceum Theatre

Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical “CATS” is such as a treasured Broadway staple, the expression “It’s better than CATS” has been coined to describe something truly exceptional. Based on T.S. Eliot’s book of poems “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the production is the third-longest running show on Broadway.

California Youth Conservatory Theatre (CYC) brings “CATS” to San Diego with five young La Jolla actors in the cast — along with students in high school and adult actors. The production also features San Diego vocal coach Leigh Scarritt and director Shaun Evans as some of the big cats.

Evans said this production will play to CYC’s reputation of surprising theatergoers. “When people come to see our musicals, they think ‘oh, it’s a youth company, they’re just kids’ and it’s never what they expected, they are blown away by the quality of singing and acting,” he said.

Julia Van skike, Brenden Dallaire and Lauren Muehl during a ‘CATS’ rehearsal
Julia Van skike, Brenden Dallaire and Lauren Muehl during a ‘CATS’ rehearsal
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With the cast of “CATS,” Evans said he himself has been blown away by the commitment of the young actors, and is sure their love for the stage will come through during its Sept. 26-Oct. 11 run at the Lyceum Theater downtown.

“Generally speaking, the kids love to perform but they don’t all like to rehearse, so going through the rehearsal process can be a chore. It’s a necessary evil for them,” he said. “But in this show, there is none of that. everyone is at every rehearsal and they are so happy to be there. they love to learn the songs and can’t wait to dance, they are super pumped and loving the process.”

each actor brings a little something special to the process. One of the youngest, Lauren Muehl, 7, a student at bird rock elementary, said she loves the songs and singing in the ensemble is “a great experience.” Her character is a Siamese cat.

“A lot of plays have singing but not much dancing, this one has both,” she said. When people see the show “they will see all the hard work the kids did to learn everything.”

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Lauren plans to audition for more roles in the future.

Julia Van Skike, 10, also a student at bird rock elementary School, said she prepared for her role by watching her two cats (and six foster kittens) at home.

“the character (electra) is a twin kitten with etcetera and she’s shy and quiet, while etcetera is very bubbly and playful,” Julia said. because her foster kittens are small, she was able to watch how they move and learn to make small movements to play on her character’s shy nature.

Julia said she also watched the “CATS” movie — a taping of a broadway show — that made her want to be in the production one day. Julia has already been in the CYC production of “Annie,” and other theater company shows.

“There are so many fun things about theater, I learn a lot and I get to make friends,” she said. “But I think ‘CATS’ is a really fun production because there so many different characters in different shapes, colors and sizes.”

La Jolla resident and Francis Parker student Isabella Walther-Meade, 11, said she listened to the iconic soundtrack to prepare for her role as Cassandra. “The music is great and being familiar with the songs helped a lot,” she said. “the music welcomes you into this imaginary world of cats and gives you a feeling for what they must be thinking and what it must be like to live in that world.”

Isabella said her favorite song is the ensemble number “Mr. Mistoffelees” because it has a great tune and everyone gets to be in it. Another classic song from the score includes the emotional ballad “Memory.”

Isabella added that, thanks in part to Evans’ direction, the actors are free to incorporate cat-like movements into the choreography as they see fit. “They teach you the dance moves and you can add your little paw scratches or whatever seems right,” she said.

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the young songstress has also been in the CYC productions of “Les miserables” and San Diego Junior theater production of “Shrek the musical.”

Brenden Dallaire, 12, a La Jolla resident and mount everest Academy student, also had a role in CYC’s “Les Mis,” and has been in a version of “CAtS” already.

“I love the musical,” he said. “I’ve watched clips from the movie and I was just in an acting summer camp (theater Arts Studio) for two weeks, and we did a production of “CAtS.’”

In his camp production, Brenden played rum tum tugger, but this time, he’ll be playing Skimbleshanks. “He thinks he’s the king cat and that he controls the railway (where he lives), but he doesn’t,” he said.

Singing Brenden’s praises, Evans called him exceptionally talented. “When you hear him, you think, that’s a singing professional in the making,” he said. “He really causes your ears to perk up.”

Bishop’s School student Olivia Wiese, 12, also brings her powerful pipes to the role of Demeter. Having performed at the San Diego County Fair and the Adams Avenue Street Fair, Olivia said she loves to sing and enjoys her solos in her principal role. “It’s such a fun musical and Demeter is such a fun character,” she said. “She is one of the middle-aged cats, so she’s not a kitten but not an older cat. She’s had a relationship with Macavity (the show’s only real villain) in the past and now has a relationship with Munkustrap (the story’s main narrator).”

Of her cast-mates, she said everyone “really gets into character” and that creates a professional atmosphere. “they put on such good shows,” she said. “And this show is great for any age because it’s very lively and the music is great and really fun.”