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A ‘Cats’ tale at Casa Mañana

02/24/2014 3:45 PM

02/24/2014 3:46 PM

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats has long been known as a musical the whole family can enjoy.

But a production of that wildly popular show, which opens Saturday at Casa Mañana, seems to be trying to prove that it is also a show that the whole family can be in.

“We couldn’t believe it. We were so excited,” says Steve Watkins, about hearing the news that he and his daughter, Lauren, had been cast in the show. “It was a great Christmas present.”

But Watkins should not have been surprised. He is no stranger to this show, having been part of one of its national tours for eight years. And it was on that tour that Watkins fell in love with Lauren’s mother, Helen, who was also performing in the show.

Also, Watkins and his daughter were not exactly strangers to the director-choreographer for the Casa production, Richard Stafford.

“I met Lauren when she was in the womb,” says Stafford, who has performed in Cats on Broadway, toured extensively with the show (including the tour with the Watkinses) and directed and choreographed countless productions of it in this country and abroad. In one way or another, Cats has been a part of his life for more than 27 years.

“There is always something to be learned from it. It is so rich choreographically and musically,” says Stafford, who has also directed or choreographed several shows at Casa, including a production of Evita in 2011.

But this is the first time he has directed Watkins and his daughter, who is a 17-year-old senior at Northview High School in Johns Creek, Ga., just outside of Atlanta. In fact, this is the first time anybody has directed the pair.

“I haven’t ever performed with my parents,” says Lauren, who plays the part of Sillabub, a kitten who craves the acceptance of the older cats. “But I can’t wait. I love singing with my dad. I sing with him every Sunday at church.”

When speaking with the bubbly younger Watkins, it is clear she is so excited that they may have to put weights in her shoes to keep her feet on the ground during the run.

“It’s an adventure. At first I was nervous. This was the first time I had flown in an airplane by myself, for example,” Lauren says.

But the young thespian is obviously comforted by being directed by the old family friend whom she calls “Mr. Richard.”

Dad, however, may have a bigger hill to climb. He and his wife left the theater when they left the touring production of Cats — about 17 years ago.

“It is difficult. It is a very physical show. So I am doing some running,” says Watkins, 55, who works in the telecommunications industry. “But the roles I play [Bustopher Jones and Asparagus] are really more challenging vocally than physically.”

So he, too, will be depending on Stafford, whom he does not call Mr. Richard.

“I am very excited about what he is going to bring out of me in these roles. He is tremendous. He knows every intricacy and nuance of this show and he is great about sharing his knowledge,” says Watkins.

There is plenty of knowledge associated with this show. It is the second-longest running Broadway show in history, having amassed 7,485 performances as of January, according to Playbill.

That places it second to another Lloyd Webber smash, the still-running The Phantom of the Opera, which is closing in on 11,000 performances on Broadway.

It is also an important show to this area, because it served as a booster rocket for the career of Fort Worth musical theater star Betty Buckley, who was part of the show’s original cast.

That’s not bad for a generally mindless musical that relies on singing and dancing felines to carry the day. But Stafford feels that may be exactly why this show is so endlessly appealing.

“Audiences feel comfortable with the show,” he says. “Even if they are not transformed, hopefully they will be transported.”

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