Third time’s a charm for CATS

CATS production team at the Winter Gardens.  Pictured is general manager Alex Halpern.
CATS production team at the Winter Gardens. Pictured is general manager Alex Halpern.
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Tonight’s the night Blackpool’s summer season kicks off as mega musical Cats returns to the resort. The Gazette meets two of the production team helping bring the West End production to the Opera House stage.

It’s a magical musical, that’s enthralled audiences the world over for more than 30 years.

With a set like this particular one, you have to sit it down [in a theatre] for more than two or three weeks, and the Opera House is such a wonderful stage which suits the set really well.

Alex Halpern

And Cats is heading back to Blackpool for a third time, ready for eight weeks of packed houses, hoping to recreate the buzz seen in town with last summer’s blockbuster Mamma Mia!.

There’ll be plenty of parents today who remember seeing the show during its sixth-month run in 1989 – and it’s their turn now to introduce top notch theatre to their children.

As the cast limbers up for its first performance tonight, general manager Alex Halpern and associate production manager Matt Jones are heading up the teams which get the show on the road.

And Matt’s just one of the thousands of theatre lovers who made the trip to Blackpool in 1989.

“I saw it back then when I was a kid and I can still remember it,” said Matt, who grew up in Chester.

“To come back and be over-seeing it, however many years later, it makes me realise how lucky I am.”

Matt’s been working on the set up at the Opera House for more than two weeks, keeping the ‘get in’ schedule on track, as well as ironing out any issues with the new venue.

After Cats closed in London in 2002, there have been national tours – including one that came to Blackpool in 2003.

But late last year it returned to the theatre world’s attention, when it went back into the West End,

starring top glamour puss Nicole Scherzinger, playing to sell out houses at the London Palladium over Christmas and through until April.

“CATS has a place in a lot of people’s hearts,” Alex said. “Especially now, we have parents who saw it in the Eighties and Nineties coming along with their children.

“We toured the UK and Europe in 2013/14 to fantastic reactions everywhere we went.

“Then we brought it into the Palladium for Christmas, for the first time in London since it left the New London Theatre in 2002.

“Cats at the London Palladium was quite special.”

And that special nature of the show – with the exact same set as was used in the Palladium – will play for the next eight weeks in Blackpool, fronted by singer and ex-Loose Women presenter Jane McDonald.

The set is spectacular, take my word for it – breathtakingly so, but no photos are as yet permitted of it by the company.

“With a set like this particular one, you have to sit it down [in a theatre] for more than two or three weeks, and the Opera House is such a wonderful stage which suits the set really well.

“When we normally tour the show, we get in over two days – performing the first night at the end of that second day.

“This one took about five days to set up. We wanted to make sure Blackpool got the best.”

After that basic set up, almost constant adjustments have been made to the set – all around the cast also familiarising themselves with the new stage space.

Matt’s team of 40 work from 9am to 10pm daily, snatching time around breaks in rehearsal to complete the final touches.

“The set fits and works really well in this space, it has been nice we’ve not had to alter much to get it right,” he added.

By the time the curtain goes up on tonight’s preview performance, the cast have had nine days on the Opera House stage.

“We have had the luxury of building the full set for them to rehearse on for a full week,” Alex explained.

“This is the first time that this cast has been brought together. Several have been in various productions of Cats before, but not as a whole company – and they are looking fantastic.”

And Matt added: “Usually a basic set is built in the rehearsal studio, but here they’ve had all the elements and the real set in situ. The cast had five days on set before even adding in the technical elements.”

The logistics of bringing a show of this size and scale to Blackpool are not for the faint hearted.

Twelve lorries delivered the kit, but the Opera House’s backstage access meant meticulous planning was needed to allow for unloading and each truck moving on in time for the next arrival, without wasting driver hours.

Ensuring all the technical and artistic elements come together at the right times also takes significant planning, especially given the time needed to bring the new cast together.

And ‘staying faithful’ to the show’s roots – in direction by Trevor Nunn, choreography by Gillian Lynne and design by John Napier, all of which have become iconic in the theatre world over the past 34 years since Cats’ premiere – is of utmost importance.

That said, the Cats Blackpool audiences are about to enjoy will vary slightly from the production staged in 1989 and even 2003, with Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber having re-written some elements when it went into the Palladium.

And Alex urged residents to come out and see the show.

“This is the only date outside of London to see the show this year, and it is the only place outside London that we will sit down for this length of time,” he said.

“It’s wonderful to be back after all these years.

“What’s also very special about this production is the work that went on at the Palladium; having the original director and choreographer and designer all back, on set and working with the cast and technicians again.

“That was a tremendous privilege to have that input once again.

“It was extraordinary seeing all these members of stage royalty in the stalls, these top names in British creative talent, who’ve been three of the most successful people in each of their careers.

“There’s a real nostalgia now about being in Blackpool too.

“We have one of the most recognisable logos in the theatre world, and it’s wonderful to see the eyes looking at you everywhere you go around Blackpool.

“Hopefully that will remind people of when they saw it all those years ago, and make them want to come now, and bring their children, or those who’ve not seen it but who recognise the logo and realise this is their chance to see it.”

* The hit show will run at the Blackpool Opera House for a strictly limited eight week run until September 5.

For tickets call 01253 629666 or 0844 856 1111 or go to www.ticketmaster.co.uk. Offers are available.