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Cats the Musical in Istanbul

Finally, we have one of the largest performing arts centers in the world, right at the very heart of Istanbul! Zorlu Center Performing Arts Center (PSM), residing on a total of 50.000 m2, has recently begun to host the legendary musical productions well-known throughout the world. I’d like to mention some very extraordinary facts about the Main Theater, so you can understand why the biggest productions of musical history are on the verge of signing a contract with the Center.

Zorlu Center PSM is operated by New York City based Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment (NWE), a family business that is celebrating its 101st anniversary as the operator of one of the largest live entertainment organizations in the world. The dazzling Main Theatre of the Center, has a seat capacity of 2.262 with two balconies, a stage area of 1.500 m2 and a backstage area of 1.000 m2. If these numbers don’t really help you imagine, please take a closer look at the photo that I took from the very endpoint of the backstage. Now you probably get what I mean! The technical manager of the Center, Fatih Osmançelebioğlu, who has been very kind to show me almost every corner of the Center and introduced me to the edge of technology available at their command, even decided to place an NBA standard  basketball court within the backstage for the crew to loosen stress once a while. So if you happen to pay a visit, make sure to try a few three-pointer shots! 🙂

Broadway’s 54 times award winner – including the Grammy for the Best Musical Album, the Olivier Award for Best Musical, the Helpmann Award for Best Musical, and the Tony Award for Best Musical – Jersey Boys was the first musical production to make premiere at the Zorlu Center PSM in 13 November 2013, and stage 16 shows. The exciting and dynamic story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons made a big hit introducing the Center as a new address to Broadway shows following New York and London.

The Main Theater has now opened curtains for the longest running musical of history, CATS for 24 shows ending by 09 February 2014. Another near future production Zorlu Center will be hosting is Notre Damme de Paris, settled to make premiere on 22 April 2014. And there are ongoing negotiations for other greatest Broadway productions of all times. So be alert and keep an eye on the event calendar of Zorlu Center PSM. Let’s get back to the CATS for the moment. This phenomenal musical, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot dates all the way back to 1981. The musical tells the story of a tribe of cats called the ‘Jellicles’, who live in a junkyard and gather up for the ‘Jellicle Ball’ held once a year where the tribe’s patriarch makes the ‘Jellicle Choice’ and chooses one cat to ascend to the ‘Heaviside Layer’, where it will be reborn into a new life. A collection of cats each with unique skills and their own backstory are introduced one by one until the final choice is made. The musical which introduced the well-known song ‘Memory’ for the first time, winning seven Tony Awards and two Laurence Olivier Awards, is a well blend of music, dance, poetry and drama. Having stated some facts, let’s move over to more of my personal ideas and feelings throughout this magical experience.

Having met this musical ten years ago, Zorlu gave me the chance to re-visit the production. Much has changed choreographically since then, but the spirit and the flavor is fully there along with some conventional staging approaches. Beginning with a short survey on the cast, the team seems to be a well-chosen blend of artists with remarkable music and dance education background. Personal expertise and skills of the dancers are highlighted individually through solo performances scattered within well-formed and synchronized group routines.

The show encloses mainly jazz and modern dance figures along with some ballet series. The routines show strong signs of 1980s famous Bob Fosse-esque style.

A quick reference for those wondering, Robert Louis Bob Fosse was an American actor, dancer, musical theatre choreographer, director, screenwriter, film editor and film director who won eight Tony Awards for choreography, and one for direction, and was nominated for Academy Award four times, winning for his direction of Cabaret. One of his most known musical productions is Chicago.

A new and exciting add-in that I observed is the New York’s Broadway style tap dance routine. This dance form is characterized by tapping of the feet using shoes with metal taps placed on heels and toes, to create sounds as a percussive instrument supporting the figurative movement.

There are some highlights among characters such as Rum Tum Tugger – I personally named him the ‘Elvis Cat’- who is the master humor factor of the show, while Mr. Mistoffelees is the master of dance solos. Grizabella the ‘Glamour Cat’, who is a very old cat no longer resembling the proud, flamboyant dancer of her youth and thus treated badly by the tribe, happens to be the best voice in the cast. Another dominant character is the old ‘Theater Cat’ Asparagus, who recalls of his hey-days in acting which is choreographed into flashback routines. This part I must say is a very distinctive touch comparing modern day, edge of the technology productions with conventional old school theater, which I also find to be some sort of self-criticism of the show.

The set for CATS is literally a garbage! 🙂 The whole show takes place in a junkyard, where bits and pieces of cars, machines, boxes, households, supersized shoes, tennis rackets etc. are scattered all around, even flooding over the edge of the stage towards the first row of seats. An impressive highlight within the show, is where the cats use parts of trash around the set to build up a huge moving and steaming train, spotting the audience with a headlight. Lighting designs are well used to strengthen dance performances, or provide a moody atmosphere for dramatic scenes. Streams of small light bulbs that resemble ping-pong balls are placed on the ceiling of the seating area, changing color according to the scene, thus pulling the audience into the CATS’ playground.

At his point, I’d like to take the subject to a technical issue. During my first visit at the Zorlu Center PSM Main Theater, I had a chance to see how big the stage and the backstage area was. So when I took a quick glance during the CATS show, I realized only about one third of the stage was actually being used. I believe the set was actually designed to fit into the classical English boutique theaters. I also got the information that almost none of the lighting or other stage inventory of the Center was actually used. Well since we know how conservative and conventional English producers are, that’s probably the reason why the show was brought in as it is. I would personally expect a better usage of the outstanding technical hardware and stage opportunities of Zorlu Center. Well, may be the next show!

So as to get back to the story, we see performers often making entrances and exits from the auditorium, interacting with the audience on their way. While one cat is chatting with a small kid, another is sitting on the laps of a spectator swinging its tail, and another silently sneaking behind an old lady to steal her popcorn! Thus the audience is dragged into the feeling of sensation that a naughty cat may suddenly appear at their shoulder, sniffing and licking. 🙂

The music setlist includes a wide range of genres from classic ballads to synthesized rock melodies. The vocals performed also vary from high note tinglings to low moody, jazzy tones. And one other important point to make is that most of these outstanding vocal performances are carried out during hard and energetic dance routines, where I haven’t even heard a single heavy breathing or a flat note, which is something not very easily realized and appreciated by the audience. The ‘Jellicle Ball’ scene for example lasts about ten minutes, which is a pretty long period for a dance-and-sing performance!

Either if you have great experience and know-how on musical theaters, or you’re just a spectator looking for an enjoyable night-out, CATS has something to please you. The history and expertise, skilled dancers, hair-rising vocals, rich orchestration, audience interaction, fluffy costumes, shiny props, interesting lighting and lots more. There is something to drag you into the magic trip. So grab the chance to be a part of it before they are out of town!

The last but not the least, back at the Zorlu Center PSM: Having great respect for the technical manager, Mr. Osmançelebioğlu and his very hard working crew, I must say they deserve appreciation and a big applause too. And another special thanks to all managers, owners and investors of the Center, for giving us the chance to welcome world’s greatest productions in Turkey, showing them the Turkish hospitality.

Zorlu Center Performing Arts Center Website
Wikipedia entry for Cats Musical
Cats the Musical Official Website
Wikipedia entry for Bob Fosse
Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment Website
Fatih Osmançelebioğlu, Technical Production Manager of Zorlu Center PSM

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