For three years, Lucinda Merry-Browne, director of the Compass Rose Theater, has been hoping to stage Cats in the intimate setting that houses the Annapolis, Md.-based stage. She finally procured the rights and it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time for the theater, as it also had another of T.S. Eliot’s productions on tap for this season.
“I think Cats is a very strong show and plays well in our space,” Merry-Browne says. “I really wanted to do Cats because T.S. Eliot is the author of the poems that the musical is based on, and I wanted to pair it with his Nobel Prize winning Murder in the Cathedral, which we are staging next.”
The two Eliot works are as different as night and day—one’s a collection of music written by Andrew Lloyd Webber set to a book of children’s poems Eliot wrote entitled, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats; while the other is a verse drama that portrays the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.
“I love that these are completely different types of work. It shows the range and depth and variety that one playwright can bring,” Merry-Browne says. “When Webber took his poems for Cats and matched his music to text, no one knew it would be such a hit and an amazing piece of theater.”
It was Merry-Browne’s hope that the Compass Rose Theater could give Cats a different feel for those who had seen the third-longest-running show in Broadway history in the massive Winter Garden Theatre.
“I like the intimacy we can bring with it being in a small space,” she says. “We’re making this show for someone who might have seen it from the fifth balcony in a Broadway theater, where the cats were the size of your thumb, and we’ve put it in a space where they can be up close and personal. When our cats lie down on the stage, they are right near the audience—very present and a real life interactive theater experience.”
Helping to make this all possible was the open casting ritual that Compass Rose employs for all of its shows.
“While we have people who come back and do multiple shows for us, I feel it’s more of a level playing field if you don’t pre-cast and open it up every time to all the actors,” Merry-Browne says. “Even those who worked for us many years, still have to try out for our shows.”
First, an open audition is held in Annapolis for both Equity and non-Equity members. After two auditions, there are callbacks and if the perfect cast has not been found, an audition notice goes up in New York. That happened for Cats.
“We scheduled a studio there and hired an accompanist and the choreographer and I went and saw 50 actors over the course of three hours,” she says. “After that, we invited callbacks to Annapolis. We feel if an actor can’t make it down for a callback, they may not be able to come down for the show.”
Closes December 21, 2014
Compass Rose Studio Theater
49 Spa Road
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $20 – 35
Thursdays thru Sundays
“There are a lot of people in New York looking for work who are really good, so we see no reason not to cast this way,” Merry-Browne says. “It’s worked really well for us.”
The actors from New York are Alison Rose Munn, playing Grizabella; Anne Schroeder, playing Jennyannydots; Ishmael Edwards, playing Munkustrap; Jessica McKay, playing Mr. Mistoffeles; Cassie Bednall, playing Demeter; and Megan Schwartz (from Connecticut), doubling up on Victoria and Rumpleteazer.
“We needed to find local housing for five of them (one had a relative in the area) and we invited our donors and patrons to host, and many stepped up,” Merry-Browne says. “The host family is sort of like having an exchange student, although there is no obligation to cook for them or do anything outside of providing a room.” Annapolis residents have a tradition of opening their homes for distinguished visitors to the Naval Academy.
All hosts get free tickets to the entire Compass Rose season, so it’s a win-win for all involved.