The blockbuster musical that sprang to life in 1981, “Cats,” is finally coming to Vashon this weekend, 32 years after its stunning debut on London’s West End, courtesy of Drama Dock’s Youth Theatre Initiative.
The production features 41 island teens and young people ages 10 to 22, taking part in all the furry fun of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s ground-breaking show based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”
Through music, dance and theatrical spectacle, the show tells the story of a wild tribe of cats called the Jellicles and includes the monster hit song “Memory,” as well as many other showstoppers instantly familiar to musical theater fans.
Elizabeth Ripley, who is a fixture of Vashon’s theater community, has directed the show — her fifth offering to the Youth Theatre Initiative, which she launched in 2010 with a fondly-remembered production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods Junior.” Since then, she has directed island youth in “Grease,” “Godspell” and two one-acts, “Alice” and “Chamber Music.”
She chose “Cats” this time around, she said, because it was a perfect show for a group of kids she’s gotten to know well through the years.
“I was looking at the kids in “Grease” and “Godspell,” and I saw all these incredible dancers,” she said. “I knew “Cats” was a show for them.”
Ripley said she was “surprised and terrified” by the number of kids who turned out for auditions for the show, because she is committed to making sure anyone who wants to participate is given the opportunity to do so.
“We have a policy, if they come, they are cast,” she said.
Because the show is full of dance numbers, Ripley reached out to the community this time around, recruiting four accomplished island choreographers, Elizabeth Schoen, Abby Enson, Claudine Kim-Murphy and Pam Hotchkiss, to stage the complicated dance numbers in the show. One of the cast members, Louisa Moody, has also choreographed a piece in the show.
“Our whole purpose is mentoring and bringing on the next generation, so when Louisa asked if she could choreograph, of course we said yes,” Ripley said.
Under Ripley’s direction, the Youth Theatre Initiative has evolved over the years to embrace an ambitious mission of nurturing young island performers.
“You can take children who are afraid of their own shadows and get them out on a stage doing something they didn’t think they could ever do,” she said. “There is nothing else out there like this. It teaches children how to communicate with each other, how to love and support each other. When you work in a theater family, you learn to care about each other.”
But beyond her mission to nurture young people, Ripley said she is also eager to bring a great show to island audiences.
“If you go to a youth production, you don’t expect good production values, and you expect to see children,” she said. “If you go to “Cats,” you won’t see any children on the stage. You will see tiny cats and tall cats. It’s epic — the biggest show I’ve ever done in my life.”
Ripley expects islanders will turn up in droves to see “Cats” and hopes that the audience might include future donors to the Youth Theatre Initiative.
“Cats,” she explained, cost $14,000 to stage, with that expense only partially offset by participation fees, which were waived for more than 25 percent of the cast members. Fundraising efforts, including a car wash, helped pay for the production, but the rest of the show must be paid for by ticket sales.
“We are looking for an angel to help support what we do,” she said.
“Cats” will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Vashon High School theater. Tickets, $15 general, $10 for Drama Dock members and $5 for youth and seniors, are on sale at the door and at the Vashon Bookshop.