‘Cats’ – extra Monday matinee added at 2 pm

From left: Sarah Ortlip-Sommers, Sophie Nelson, and Mikayla Tinus rehearsed on Monday. — Photo by Susan Safford

Update: Saturday’s performance was cancelled because of the snowstorm, but an extra matinee performance is scheduled for 2 pm Monday.

Fantastical costumes, an elaborate set, stunning special effects, a full orchestra, loads of fun choreography, and a huge cast make for a very professionally executed spectacle as “Cats” pounces onto the stage of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s (MVRHS) Performing Arts Center this weekend.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical (the second longest-running Broadway show of all time) is the story of a community — of cats, of course. As produced by the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, “Cats” is the story of a community as well: A community of teens and adults who combined their considerable talents to create an extravaganza of impressive proportions and a show that is sure to entertain all ages.

“It was a challenge that we wanted to take on,” said stage director Betsy Hauck. “It’s musically challenging, choreographically challenging, design challenging. We couldn’t have done it without all the help that we got. The more people who heard about it, the more people who approached us and asked how they could help. It’s an iconic show that people adore.”

Among those who volunteered their time and talents were MVRHS alum, high school faculty members, community tradespeople, sound and lighting engineers, and a host of others who helped out with sets, costumes, special effects, and just about every aspect of the production. Along with two former local high school students, a couple of home schooled kids help fill out the 30-plus member cast. A 15-piece live band, led by conductor Abigail Chandler, is split almost equally between professional musicians from the community and teens.

The end result is a spectacular testament to a teamwork effort and a production comparable to a large regional theater production. From the opening chords of the orchestra and the first glimpse of the fully wrought junkyard scene set — complete with a huge abandoned car and a long metal chute — one knows that they’re in for a magical evening. And the two-hour show certainly does not disappoint. The costumes, which were purchased from an off-Island theater company and reworked and enhanced by a six-person crew, bring the ragtag band of Jellicle cats to Technicolor life. The makeup by a high school team led by graduate Katie Feeks is equally impressive. Each cat sports a different dramatic look.

Lighting effects dominated by a spectacular moonlight night do a lot to enhance the production and some very special effects are sure to surprise and enchant audience members.

“Cats is based on the poems from T.S. Eliot’s book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” (1939). The production is a sung-through show: there is no dialogue, and the story unfolds through the songs. In the first half we are introduced to the cast of colorful cats — a pack with a variety of personalities and talents. Using the text of a number of the poems as lyrics and some very catchy tunes, Webber has managed to make the semi-wild cats inhabiting a London alley come alive and show off their very distinctive feline personas, including a former actor, a duo of thieves, a fallen beauty, a particularly finicky feline, and a dandified “fat cat” type.

The second half introduces a plot that pits the cats in a competition of sorts. This act includes the most famous song from the musical, “Memory,” which is the principal diversion from the T.S. Eliot penned lyrics. The hauntingly beautiful song’s lyrics were written by Trevor Nunnafter an Eliot poem entitled “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”.

Among the 18 songs, Webber’s versatility is in evidence as the cast performs tunes with influences ranging from jazz to pop to rock to ballads. Luckily, there’s plenty of talent among the young cast. It would be impossible to single out any one vocalists for his or her contribution because all of the soloists and ensemblists are very strong and up to the challenge of the show’s often difficult melodies.

Veteran musical director Jan Wightman coaxes first-class performances out of her cast. The dancing is equally impressive. The choreography team of Lianna Loughman and student Alexis Willett (with a handful of students lending a hand) have perfectly incorporated feline behavior into numbers ranging from ballet to jazz to pull-out-all-the stops Broadway spectacle.

Kudos to Ms. Hauck for selecting a show that’s both challenging to students and a true audience pleaser. And congratulations to all involved for pulling off the challenge. Ms. Hauck is insistent that the credit for this remarkable accomplishment belongs to the entire community.

“We’re overwhelmed with gratitude for everyone who’s been so helpful,” she said. As a token of their appreciation, the production team will offer free digital advertising to one local concern –—the Martha’s Vineyard Animal Shelter, of course. Images of cats up for adoption will be projected on the theater’s six large side screens before the show and during intermission. No guarantees that they can sing or dance.

Theater: “Cats”, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Feb. 13–15, 7:30 pm; Sunday, Feb. 16, 2 pm, M.V. Regional High School Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. $10; $7 seniors and students at the door.