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LI 'Cats' superfans explain why it's pure catnip — and so polarizing

Three 'Cats" superfans got together at Catpurrcino's Cat Cafe in Huntington on Wednesday Dec. 11, 2019, to talk about why they think the show is the cat's meow. (Credit: Newsday Steve Pfost)

Say what you want about the musical “Cats” — and a lot’s been said — but one thing’s clear: You either love the Andrew Lloyd Webber Tony Award-winning spectacle or love to hate it.

“I’m constantly going toe to toe with people about ‘Cats,’ ” says superfan Rebecca Vogel, 27, of Centereach, who has seen the show about 10 times, she estimates.

Or there’s Daniel Schinina, 27, an actor from Central Islip who has performed in the show twice, including a 2014 BroadHollow Theatre production at the BayWay Arts Center in East Islip.

“When I say I like ‘Cats,’ friends look at me like, ‘What? What’s wrong with you?’” he says.

As musicals go, “Cats” is unique. Name pretty much any other show, and you’ll find fans, haters and a fair share falling somewhere in between. But with “Cats,” for some inexplicable reason, there is no middle ground.

This should come as no surprise to director Tom Hooper, who is offering up a new celebrity-packed film version — with Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench and James Corden, among others —plus a new song (written by Lloyd Webber and Swift), due out Dec. 20.

With this newest iteration already stirring up controversy, we decided to seek out fans to figure out why the show is so darn polarizing. After all, it’s just your typical dance-opera hybrid about a mysterious society of jellicle cats (“jellicle” being a completely made-up term, by the way) who gather once a year to cavort and sing songs before sending one lucky puss off to kitty-cat heaven in a spaceshiplike truck tire. Uh … OK, maybe that’s part of the problem right there.

Total cheeseball? Or sheer purr-fection?

Poking fun at “Cats” isn’t exactly a challenge. Since this feline fusion of pop music (by Lloyd Webber), poetry (by T.S. Eliot) and dance (originally choreographed by Gillian Lynne) debuted in London’s West End in 1981, then Broadway in 1982, there have been plenty of parodies.

“I can understand that people think it’s weird,” says Schinina. He points to the furry cat costumes, elaborate makeup, and lack of plot (it’s essentially a pop opera, with songs using Eliot’s 1939 collection of poems, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” as lyrics).

“It’s not obvious,” Vogel agrees. “It’s not a big romantic story where you follow one or two characters to the end.”

There’s also the interactive factor — actors prowl through the audience, purring, pawing and nuzzling against your legs.

“Many people can’t buy the concept,” says Rick Grossman, a veteran actor and director from Suffolk County who has worked in theaters across Long Island. “When you can’t buy the concept you tend to dismiss it.”

Yet despite the naysayers, “Cats” struck a chord. Its record-breaking Broadway run from 1982 to 2000 not only launched a British invasion of flashy mega-musicals but made it the longest-running show of all time. “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Chicago” and “The Lion King” have since surpassed that benchmark, but the aura of “Cats” lives on.

A lack of local productions

For all its popularity, there haven’t been many Long Island productions.

“That’s because it’s so difficult to do,” says Grossman. “You need a company of — for the most part — trained dancers.”

Gateway Playhouse mounted the show in 2004, then again in 2012; BroadHollow Theatre, in 2014; and Sachem East High School let the fur fly in 2012.

“The show had a pretty big impact on my life,” recalls Allison Bohman Thomashefski, 30, a Sayville native who appeared in Gateway’s 2004 version as the kitten, Sillabub. “I was the only child — I turned 15 in that show. Everyone else in the cast was professional.”

Her participation was a family effort. Her parents actually adopted a cat to help her observe how cats move.

“It was a hard sell, my mom didn’t want the cat,” Thomashefski recalls. She and her sisters convinced their dad it would be a good idea, and quickly picked one out. “There was no turning back then,” she says, laughing.

She now teaches theater and dance in Rochester at a Catholic high school and at Nazareth College. Audiences are polarized by the musical, she believes, because “society is polarized by cats in general. You’re either a cat person or very much not a cat person.”

Claws and effect

Vogel can still recall the joy of seeing the show for the first time on Broadway, when she was about 5. She has a photo, taken later that year, of her and four friends on Halloween. The other little girls wear standard pink princess costumes, but Vogel is dressed as a white kitten, with furry paws and tail, and whiskers drawn on with Mom’s eyeliner.

The show’s effect was lifelong. Dancing became everything to her. She went on to dance competitively with the David Sanders Dance Dynamics in North Babylon, and later studied dance at Hofstra. Though she eventually hung up her dance shoes, opting for a master’s degree in nonprofit management — she’s company manager at Eastline Theatre in Wantagh — she credits “Cats” with teaching her at a young age about the positive power of reinvention.

“It’s a show about change,” she says.

Audiences, alas, too often get distracted by the razzle-dazzle.

“T.S. Eliot was writing about cats,” says Grossman, “but he had a message for human beings that you can have dreams, you can aspire to be more, to stretch yourself.”

Which seems fair. If cats get nine lives, there’s no reason why we humans can’t get at least two or three.

Will it be the cat's meow?

Ask fans what they think of the upcoming “Cats” movie and you get similar replies.

“I’m a little skeptical,” says Allison Bohman Thomashefski, who hails from Sayville.

“I’m a little skeptical,” echoes Daniel Schinina of Central Islip.

Rebecca Vogel of Centereach just chuckles. “I think it’s going to make the conversation of why I like ‘Cats’ so much harder to have.”

Director Tom Hooper is used to movie musical controversy, having brought us “Les Misérables,” in all its up-close, off-key glory.

Trailers for “Cats” dropped in July and November, unleashing a social-media firestorm. The film packs star power — with Taylor Swift (as Bombalurina), Judi Dench (Old Deuteronomy), Ian McKellen (Gus), Idris Elba (Macavity), James Corden (Bustopher Jones), Rebel Wilson (Jennyanydots), Jason Derulo (Rum Tum Tugger) and Jennifer Hudson (Grizabella), who’ll belt out “Memory.” Royal Ballet principal dancer Francesca Hayward, in her feature-film debut, will sing “Beautiful Ghosts,” a new song by Lloyd Webber and Swift. (And Swift sings it in the credits.)

Compared to those who’ve played the roles onstage, these actors had it easy. No hot furry cat costumes for them — Hooper used digital magic to create their catlike looks.

That’s not all that’s different. Here are three things fans worry about:

THE CASTING

I mean, I love Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson but, um…,” says Thomashefski, pausing. “It just feels gimmicky to me.”

Vogel agrees. ”A big part of what moves the show is the choreography — and a lot of the people they’ve cast in the movie are not heavily dance-trained.” Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (of “Hamilton”) has brought in dancers from the worlds of hip-hop and ballet, but “Cats” performers really need to sing, dance and act, Vogel notes.

THE SET

The original stage version took place in a junkyard, where actors could pull together unexpected objects to create props. The film takes cats from their homes to the streets, “and I don’t know about that,” says veteran Long Islander theater director and actor Rick Grossman. “There’s something ethereal and magical the way it was done onstage.”

THE EXPECTATION

Forget how it looked onstage, suggests Schinina. “If you go into it knowing it’s an adaptation and not the musical people saw on Broadway, then maybe it won’t be as bad as people think — if you just give it a chance.”

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