Riverdale Children’s Theatre is proving once again it can take a popular Broadway show not commonly done by kids, and have it done by kids.
Last January it was “Rent.” And now this summer, it’s an Andrew Lloyd Webber classic, “Cats.”
The show’s choreography “is a difficult challenge for professional dancers, never mind high school students,” said Derek Woods, one of the theatre’s co-founders.
With the help of director and choreographer Justina Ercole, the young dancers were able to grapple with the routines at their level.
“I’ve actually been in the show three times professionally, so I was really excited to work on it with (the children) and share this iconic story with them,” Ercole said.
Ercole’s extensive experience with the show — including stints with the Ritz Theatre Company and New Candlelight Theatre — has been key in making the dance intensive production possible.
“We wouldn’t even have done it without her,” Woods said. “She’s able to bring complex dance concepts down to a level where kids can make it their own and make it good.”
Many of the children in the cast have been part of the theatre group for several years, working hard to improve their dance skills both individually and as a group. The cast is mainly made up of teenagers at the high school level, although the youngest member of the cast is in sixth grade.
The children’s theatre group tends to put on shows that are both playful and easily accessible to young children, which makes “Cats” a departure from the norm.
“It’s definitely not what you’d expect to see from a kid’s theatre in Riverdale, but it’s great,” said Karen Coughlan, 16, who plays “Glamour Cat” Grizabella.
Although rehearsals may be demanding, the young cast is still excited about the more serious nature of the show. Coughlan has found that “Cats” has brought more of a sense of professionalism to not only herself, but her peers.
“It feels like we are on Broadway because we’re all taking it so seriously,” she said. “It’s professional dancing, professional theatre, and it makes us feel like we’re not just doing this for fun, we’re doing this to put on a production. We’re doing this to show our talent, and it’s looking great.”
In addition to mastering the extensive choreography, the young actors also had to master all things feline.
“It’s a lot of work to become a different character, and becoming a cat is a lot different than becoming a human,” Coughlan said. “And so it was a lot, at first, to adjust to.”
“Cats” has a large ensemble presence, meaning even the unnamed cats spend a great deal of time on stage.
“There’s so many more kids than the show is normally put on with that there’s so much featuring for everybody,” said Delia Lima, 13, one of the ensemble members. “It’s like, ‘Oh, if I’m not in this number, I’m a lot featured in this other number.’ They always make sure you’re included.”
Working together as a cast is an important part of the theatre’s productions, especially in an ensemble-heavy production like “Cats.” Lima and Aleesa Riddle, 15, who plays Bustopher Jones, both see the cast as “another family,” especially after spending three nights a week rehearsing together over two months.
For the audience, the cast’s unity translates into well-coordinated dance numbers, rarely seen in small local productions. The audience will be amazed how young the cast is, Ercole said.
“It’s outstanding to watch,” Lima said, “and outstanding to be in.”