Cats has the perfect message for Maui because it’s about family in the hanai sense,” says director and choreographer Alexander “Aly” Cardinalli. “It’s a welcoming, poignant story about a tribe who loves each other no matter what.”
Cardinalli has a powerful firsthand understanding of the love hanai family can have. Growing up in Keanae and Kihei during the summers and holidays of his youth, and in Nevada during the school year, Cardinalli credits his family—especially his stepfather, Robert Kimball—with the support he needed to launch a successful career. “If it wasn’t for my stepfather’s encouragement, I wouldn’t have done all that I’ve done—and I wouldn’t be producing Cats, today,” he says.
A classically trained dancer, Cardinalli began his career in choreography at the tender age of 16. A producer noticed him in a talent competition and immediately hired Cardinalli to choreograph an ambitious project interpreting Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream set to music by Monty Python. After high school, he moved to New York to attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, where he received a degree in theater and voice. Since, he’s traveled the country to perform and teach. Cardinalli moved home to Maui five years ago “to be closer to family,” and soon after opened his own dance and theater school, Visions Conservatory, based in Wailuku.
Cardinalli says it’s been his dream to direct Cats ever since he worked as the assistant choreographer for the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina’s production, and performed in the roles of Coricopat, Rumpus cat, and Ghengis cat, plus understudied for the roles of Mr. Mistoffeles, Alonzo and Mungojerrie. For the last three years he’s pitched Cats to Maui OnStage; he says it was challenging to convince the powers that be that the talent pool on-island is deep enough for such a “challenging production of physical and emotional extremes.”
Last year, Cats was finally selected as the producer’s choice installment of the 2010-’11 season at Iao Theater, and secured licensing by Rodgers and Hammerstein Theatricals. An ecstatic Cardinalli called his stepfather to tell him the good news.
But sadly, Kimball won’t be here to see his stepson’s dream come to fruition this Friday. He passed away just a month later.
Bereaved though Cardinalli may be, the loss of his stepfather is further fueling his fire to put on a production he says is of “Broadway quality.”
Based on T.S. Eliot’s collection of poems, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, with a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats has resonated with audiences worldwide for 30 years. First opening in New York’s West End in 1981 and debuting on Broadway in 1982, Cats went on to win seven 1983 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score. Cats ran until September 2000 and is the second-longest running Broadway musical of all time (trumped only by Phantom of the Opera). It has been translated into over 20 languages and in 1998 was adapted as a made-for-television movie.
Cardinalli says Cats boasts some of “the most physically and vocally demanding pieces in musical theater.” Well-versed in the musical’s multiple productions, he’s amalgamated what he deems “the best-fitting” elements of choreography from the Berlin, Broadway, Tokyo, Zurich and U.S. national tour productions. And he says he’s found the talent to pull it off, starting with musical director Kristen D.F. Otterson, a choral and musical director at Baldwin High School.
Cardinalli says he’s delighted with the 27-member cast—who he calls “the perfect ensemble”—and is wowed by their “highly unusual” camaraderie and dedication. Part of the reason the team works so well is Cardinalli’s unique casting strategy: he doesn’t just consider actors’ auditions, but also the way they interact with each other during downtime. “I really look at how well they play in the sandbox,” he says (or, in this case, the litter box).
Speaking of play, one element the local production incorporates from the Broadway show is “kitty playtime.” It means for the actors, intermission is no reprieve. Rather, they stalk the isles and interact with audience members—staying completely in character.
Though our theater scene’s well-defined vocal talents—leads like Dale Button, who plays the grizzled old actor named Asparagus, and Lina Aiko Krueger, who plays the pariah-seeking-salvation Grizabella—would give themselves away if audiences were blindfolded, “one of the interesting things about this production,” Cardinalli says, “is due to the heavy makeup, wigs and costumes, it may be difficult for people to recognize who’s performing onstage. It might surprise people that these talented people are our friends and people we interact with in our daily lives.”
Maybe this is another way Cats will speak to Hawaii audiences. With song and dance it artfully illustrates how cool cats of every shape, size and color can live with and love one another despite differences and discretion—and perhaps achieve purrfect harmony.