Feline groovy

“I’ve never been a cat person,” admits actor Philip Peterson. So he’s a bit hard-pressed to explain how he ended up playing one on stage. As the sage feline Old Deuteronomy in Troika Productions’ Cats, Peterson is perfecting his stray-cat strut.

“This is a role I never thought I’d do,” he reveals during an interview with Xpress. “When Cats first came out, I was a bit younger and the title Old Deuteronomy just didn’t appeal.”

These days, it’s not just Deuteronomy who’s aging gracefully: The well-loved show is entering its 25th anniversary, making it the longest-running Broadway musical to date.

Bring on the nine lives

Here’s the thing about Cats: It’s a bit of an anomaly. It’s the sole animal-dominated musical out there, offering the only four-legged roles most performers ever strive for. Asked if he’d played a critter before, Peterson just laughs, “Aside from the third-grade pageant?”

The script is based not on a playwright’s whimsical vision but on a book of poems written by T.S. Eliot (that American-born poet who strove to — and eventually did — become a stodgy Brit) for his godchildren in 1939.

“The Rum Tum Tugger is a terrible bore: / When you let him in, then he wants to be out; / He’s always on the wrong side of every door, / And as soon as he’s at home, then he’d like to get about,” Eliot wrote in sing-songy meter. The fancifully named felines of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats became a hit not only with the poet’s godchildren, but with English schoolkids countrywide.

And that’s how Andrew Lloyd Webber came to be an admirer of the Rum Tum Tugger, Mr. Mistoffelees and (perhaps not so surprisingly) Gus the Theatre Cat.

“We always had cats in our family. We lived in an apartment in South Kensington, near the Royal Albert Hall, and we had two called Sergei and Dmitri, in honor of the great Russian composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich,” Webber told Great Performances in a 1998 interview. “My father, who was a composer and music teacher, used to walk around with a Siamese pussy called Perseus, or Percy, on his shoulder.”

The composer (who’d written Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Super Star and Evita all before age 30) turned Eliot’s cats into a theatrical sensation — complete with song and dance — in 1981.

He’s got cat style

“It’s not a difficult process,” Peterson confesses about preparing to play a kitty. “It’s just a different way of going about it: changing your posture, the way you walk, the way you gesture.”

Many Cats devotees can probably relate — and, after 25 years, the show is safely ensconced in cult status. So much so that some fans have committed all the songs to heart, or want to dance along, or come dressed as favorite characters.

In fact, the fan site www.catsmusical.com posts rules of etiquette for theatergoers, helpful tips such as: “It is best if you do not sing along with the cast” and “When attending the show in costume be prepared to remove your wig to allow those behind you to see.” Other, weirder warnings include: “Do not sign autographs for members of the public who think you are in the cast.”

But Peterson isn’t about to discourage groupies from donning ears or whiskers. “Look at all the people who followed Rocky Horror [Picture Show],” he retorts. “They wear the costumes and act it out.”

In fact, as Old Deuteronomy, the actor finds he’s able to play off involved fans. “My character sits on stage the whole time during intermission,” he explains. “One time, there were three little girls who came up with their faces painted. All I saw, as a cat, were three other cats — so I interacted with them as cats.”

He adds, “I’ve never seen faces light up so much.”

The theatrical fourth wall — that invisible barrier separating actors and audience — goes away, according to Peterson. And that allows spectators to truly connect. “Cats was the first show of this nature to come out.”

But even so, he doesn’t think fans return with the expectation of seeing the original production or the first Old Deuteronomy who ever strutted across the stage. “They don’t come to see something they saw in the past; they come to rekindle something. They bring their children to show them what they enjoyed — and they’re hung up on the music.”

And as far as this cat is concerned, singing along is just fine.

Troika Productions and Broadway in Asheville present Cats at 7:30 p.m. at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Wednesday, Nov. 2. $22-$55. For more information, call 259-5544 or visit www.broadwayinasheville.com.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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