Q&A: Grizabella makes ‘Memories’ in ‘Cats’ tour at Kennedy Center

September 24, 2019

November 29, 2020 | (Jason Fraley)

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” remains one of the most iconic shows in Broadway history, winning seven Tonys, including Best Musical of 1981.

It’s become so popular that there will be a new movie version this December, starring Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, Judi Dench and Taylor Swift.

But first, catch the national tour of “Cats” at the Kennedy Center through Oct. 6.

“Our show is a refreshed version of what everybody knows,” lead actress Keri René Fuller said. “This is technically the revival of the Broadway production back in 2015, which was choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. There’s still the iconic Gillian Lynne choreography that everyone knows and loves, but with a 2019 twist. … Come on out and see us! We’d love to have you in the junkyard.”

Based on T.S. Eliot’s 1939 poetry book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the story follows a tribe of cats called the Jellicles who gather annually to decide which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and magically come back reborn.

“I will read review after review saying they’re not quite sure what the plot of ‘Cats’ is, then go on to describe the plot of ‘Cats,’ which is actually a lot more simple than a lot of people make it,” Fuller said. “It is essentially in a nut shell: a tribe of cats come together once a year to state their case to be born into a new life.”

Fuller plays the iconic role of Grizabella, which was originated by Elaine Paige in London, dominated by Betty Buckley on Broadway, then made a household name by Paige in the 1998 filmed stage version that was released straight to video.

“My Grizabella has always been Elaine Paige from the VHS production of London,” Fuller said. “I’m not quite sure how the VHS came into my house in Oklahoma, but I watched that tape [so much], it’s probably worn out by now.”

Since those days, she’s come to appreciate “Memory,” an iconic showtune.

“It was in an audition cuts music book that I got back in middle school,” Fuller said. “I remember thinking, ‘Why on earth would a young person need this song?’ Now singing it eight times a week, I understand. It is not only a vocally taxing song; but you’re infusing it with the emotion … to tell this story of being outcast from the tribe she’s always known. … When you think of theater, you think of ‘Memory.’ There are lots of memories for audiences attached to that song.”

Webber composes a sung-through songbook without dialogue, giving each cat its own entrance, from Mr. Mistoffelees to Bustopher Jones to Skimbleshanks.

“It is truly an ensemble show,” Fuller said. “It’s not just about Grizabella, Old Deuteronomy, Mistoffelees or Tugger. It’s truly about this tribe of cats that just wants to go onto this new life. As much as all of us want that ending fate, we encourage each other to get to that point. I’ve never been part of a show that is so centered on every single person. There’s not a single star. It’s all of us.”

Each cast member dons the iconic feline costumes of John Napier.

“I start out as Baby Griz, which is a unitard just like everyone else,” Fuller said. “She has her own unique design with leg warmers and yak-hair wig. I get to perform the opening and the naming of cats with my fellow cast mates, which is so special. Then after the naming of cats, I run downstairs and transform into iconic Grizabella, which is an honor to put that costume on eight times a week.”

What exactly can we expect from her specific costume?

“She’s the glamor cat, so it was designed to make her look like a weathered glamor,” Fuller said. “It’s a fur coat over the corset, thigh-high leg warmers [and] some kitten heels, no pun intended. She has this long [hair], not like the original curly wig on the VHS, it’s this beautiful straight-with-a-slight-curl wig, which is just so beautiful. Every time I see it in the mirror I just get giddy.”

Napier also handles the scenic design of a junkyard.

“We have a tire up centerstage, which is what raises the cat that is chosen for the next Jellicle life,” Fuller said. “We also have the Jellicle moon shining bright center stage on a backdrop. We have a few entrances, so we have to disguise them like you’re coming out of an oven, or a bike tire, all oversized items because we are cats, so all of the items are scaled to what a cat’s body would be.”

Surrounding the set is the lavish Kennedy Center Opera House.

“I’m still trying to wrap my brain around performing at such an iconic and special and world-renowned space as the Kennedy Center,” Fuller said. “Walking into the house for the first time was just a rush of emotion because so many amazing people have sat in the seats in that auditorium, so many amazing people have taken the stage in that auditorium. It’s truly an honor.”

Find more details on the Kennedy Center website. Hear our full chat below:

November 29, 2020 | (Jason Fraley)

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