Richard Stafford Brings CATS to Life (Once More)

by Kay Bourne
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Aug 21, 2013

Director/ choreographer Richard Stafford is excited to return once again to the alley where the Jellicle cats are pondering which of them will ascend to the Heaviside Layer.

"There's so much in the show, so much to live in it, it's a journey with so many elements," said Stafford in a recent phone conversation about the show he's had a long relationship with.

"There's the improvisational work, for one, which makes each show new and each cat new too," he said.

Lovers of this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical - and you are a bigger tribe than T. S. Elliot's large band of personable cats - immediately know from that albeit sketchy description of the plot that Stafford is immersing himself anew in the theatrical wunderkind CATS.

The West End/Broadway musical, the second longest running show in Broadway history and the fourth longest on the London stage, takes up residency at North Shore Music Theater through Sept. 1.

Stafford traces his lineage with the beloved show to his early days in professional theater when he performed Skimbleshanks: the Railway cat, first in a tour and then in New York in 1982 (he also became the dance supervisor on the show). It was the beginning of an even longer journey than the night train takes to Glasgow of which Skimbleshanks is unofficially in charge.

The out Stafford, who was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, started dancing lessons at age 11. From the very start "I loved jazz dancing and theater," he recalls.

To his good fortune, "I had very supportive parents," and so when he wanted to move to New York to try to break into theater, it was with their backing that, "I just came."

He got some small parts in tours and then stepped into the role in "CATS."

From there, he has directed/choreographed "CATS" on international tours in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, Sao Paulo, and Rio. As for national tours, he has done the show in, among venues, Sacramento Music Circus, Pittsburgh CLO, North Shore Music Theater, and Theatre by the Sea (also owned and managed by Bill Hanney along with NSMT).

He finds that people everywhere, "enjoy the spectacular that ’CATS’ offers. They love the score and TS Eliot’s poetry (the show is based on his children’s book "Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.". And they love that peek into the cat world."

Stafford last directed/choreographed "CATS" at NSMT in 2003.

Unlike many musicals done at NSMT, which is in the round, "CATS" was originally staged that way and Stafford says he keeps true to that choreography from Gillian Lynne. However, he also enjoys working with the improvisational moves invented by the actors.

He says, for one example, that the "contractions, as we call it in modern dance, that the actor makes moving from all fours to standing on his two paws differs with each performer.

For instance, take Gus, short for Asparagus, the Actor Cat.

Once a famous actor but now too old for the stage and suffering from palsy which makes his paws shake, "Gus moves in a haltering manner and how the actor uses the contraction to resemble old age, I incorporate into the choreography," explains Stafford.

Stafford is ever conscious of the audience’s pleasure as he directs "CATS" in this arena-style staging.

"I look for ways to ’face’ the show out so the greatest number of people can see which ever cat is the focus. (The cats constantly break the fourth wall in the musical, talking directly to the audience). And I put cats in the aisles. I want to ensure that everyone has a wonderful performance and sees enough of the cats’ faces when they’re singing.

"To me it feels like the ancient Greek amphitheater. It feels very historic theatrically to me and I like that," he said.

Stafford adds that he very much enjoys the audiences that come to NSMT. "They come to have a good time, to enjoy their evening, and they seem supportive of theater. I like doing shows for them." His previous shows at NSMT include "9 to 5," "The King and I," "Singin’ in the Rain," and "Swing." He will be returning to NSMT to direct and choreograph "Miss Saigon." (Nov. 5 - 17).

He says that where ever he does shows, his greatest pleasure is the job at hand.

"I want to give the best production I can for the audience, for my love of theater, and for the piece."

CATS continues through September 1, 2013 at the NSMT, 62 Dubham Rd. in Beverly. For more info please go to www.nsmt.org.


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