Local students to prowl stage in ‘Cats’

Photo by Alyssa Lidman
The 49 members of ‘Cats,’ who range in age from 6 to 17 years old

UNION, NJ — Fifteen weeks of twice-a-week rehearsals have come down to three days for 55 students, including four from Union, who will prowl the stage Jan 31-Feb. 2 at the Dolan Performance Hall at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown in a production of “Cats.”

The 49-member cast ranges in age from 6 to 17. “It’s a lot of hard work, but we laugh a lot and we understand that it’s all going to be worth it,” said Grace Rivera, 10, of Union, who plays Quaxo in the play.

“It’s cool playing a cat because it’s not every day that you get to portray an animal. I’ve been watching a lot of videos to help get myself into character. … I’m really excited for opening night, mostly because my friends and family will all be there. It will make all of our hard work seem worth it.”

Rivera is a member of Front & Center for Performing Arts, a studio based out of Springfield. This is Front & Center’s second production of “Cats” at Dolan; the first was in 2008.

Other cast members, such as fellow Unionites Bella Pina and Catherine Bevensee, can’t wait for the curtain to go up.
“Overall, I am so excited to show off our hard work, especially the senior company, because we’ve been practicing our dances and steps nonstop since we started, and we are so excited to showcase them,” 17-year-old Bevensee said. “I love being in musicals, and ‘Cats’ makes it more special, because now I get to show audiences how I am a true triple threat, with all the hardcore dancing and difficult songs.”

Front & Center’s artistic director, Renee Celeste, and vocal and acting coach, Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, teach theater so students can experience the fun and sense of community that comes from being a part of a show, but also so that their students can get a taste of show business, including an understanding of time management and self-discipline.

“You go into rehearsals and you feel like you’re stuck in mud because you’re trying to differentiate what’s different,” Piro Donovan said. “Finally, you find a way to differentiate with what works and what doesn’t.

“I came out of the womb being an actor. I was one of the lucky ones that had a really long career and was able to do what I wanted. Now, I feel like, mostly, I do it for the chance to give back to the next generation.

“There’s a lot of singing in ‘Cats.’ You need to learn how to breathe, sing, act at the same time. Act on the lines.”
Donovan’s performing career included touring, with shows such as “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon.”

“I just went from one job to another for 25 years,” she said. “Now, I’m much more selective. … I’ve done a lot; I’ve been around. I work three days a week there and I have 25 students, and I enjoy giving back all my knowledge that’s in my head about the business.”
Celeste says a production like “Cats” requires more than just dedicated students.

“A tribe of parents help out,” Celeste said. “It’s not just because it’s their kid. I think they enjoy being part of the community. They enjoy that artistic side of themselves. Watching our own little community to make these shows happen, that’s great.”

Celeste is adamant about how a production such as this teaches children life skills. She also believes that performing arts can be a way to teach history.

“We performed ‘Cats’ 11 years ago,” she said. “We’re starting to circle back to some of the things we’ve done that aren’t so gender influenced and more inclusive, give kids an opportunity to dance a lot.”

She wants those who saw the movie to experience this musical in a new way.
“I personally have a long history with the show because I did it as a performer many years ago,” she added. “They’re kids, and there are more of them than there are in the professional production. The kids at the studio are able to do the original choreography. That goes to the way we train kids these days.”

Pina appreciates the time her teachers put in and wants to show what she can do.
“It’s such a fun time learning from such great teachers who are so fun and make me love performing more,” she said. “I think it’s so special that Mrs. Renee was in the original ‘Cats’ musical and now we get to do the same.”

Bevensee, who plays Jennyanydots, said she was initially skeptical about performing in “Cats” but has had fun and appreciates how Celeste and the other staff keep the production professional.

“There are always moments in the rehearsal room where something funny happens and the whole room will start laughing,” she said. “But they make sure that, although moments like these are great, we are trained to become professional performers and learn how to behave
like one.“