When it came time to do one of the first all-new productions of Cats since the show closed on Broadway, the Cumberland County Playhouse in Crossville, TN, relied on the creativity of scenic designer Joe Varga as well as its own prop closet to create an abandoned theatre where the cats could sing, dance, and go to heaven.
John Napier's sets for the Broadway and London productions — especially the big tire — are as associated with Cats as the chandelier is with The Phantom of the Opera and the helicopter with Miss Saigon. “When a show's design is so iconic, it's hard to break away from that,” Varga says. “On the other hand, we did have budgetary considerations; obviously we wouldn't be able to afford the mechanics like John Napier had for a major Broadway production so we dealt with the conceptual combined with what was available.
“The irony is that I never saw the show myself,” Varga adds. “At the time it opened, I was one of those snotty New Yorkers who would never see such a popular show.“
Jim Crabtree, Cumberland County Playhouse's producing director for over 20 years (his parents Mary and Paul founded the Playhouse in 1963), had the idea to set the show in an abandoned theatre, with the stage now used as a storage space for old stock scenery. Adding to the ambience were old theatre posters that span 150 years of American theatre history. “The Playhouse has side stages which, for this production, were filled with a variety of old theatre posters and billboards,” Varga says. “These items were recreated through research of American theatre history. Some of the graphics were actual reproductions and some were invented but based on researched data. All the names, spanning several decades and eras, are recognizable to theatre history buffs.”
The set was an assemblage for which Varga had to design certain elements in order to make the show to work. “To do this I literally had to collage the set, but in this case the collage pieces were life-sized,” Varga explains. “They sent me photos of their stock and I had to go down there and do some hand picking. It was very much like a Tinker Toy!”
Since Cats is very dance oriented, Varga had to make spaces for the choreography as well as configure nooks and crannies for the cats to perch. “The sense of junk was transposed from the original production,” he explains. “Instead of a junkyard, it was more of a junk theatre stockyard.” As the central entrance to the stage, he used an old picture frame with stairs on either side. A dead-hung sky drop is at the rear and the scenery is passed under and around. The drop did not represent the sky in this production, but rather the icon of a theatrical drape.
Drapes and picture frames are one thing, but what about the show's finale when Grizabella ascends to heaven? Since there was no giant tire Varga simply used a Genie Lift amid smoke and mylar glitter. “Due to some rather lovely artistic lighting from Josh Hamrick, the Genie Lift was not emphasized visually in terms of what she was on,” he says. “She just stepped on this mechanism and it carried her up. The whole idea was that she was ascending amid this apotheosis of smoky clouds and glitter.”
Cats frolics at the Playhouse until September 4th.