Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS takes on new sheen as middleschool thespians perform challenging work in Kirkwood, Missouri—story by Tayé Foster Bradshaw

I first encountered the word of the talented and entertaining Antona Smith (writing under the name Tayé Foster Bradshaw) at the St. Louis Writers Guild Wired Coffee Open Mic. When Antona told me about her youngest son and middle child Joshua's choir performances, I asked her to share this work with you. Check out Antona's tayefosterbradshaw.blogspot.com blog here, "The Musings of a Latte Queen:Narratives of Everyday Life." (Her latest post concerns her elderly auntie, thus creating connections across generations, which I love.)

Music is so important in our lives and spirits and in forming our children. As a child my father sang in the car with us rather than turn on the radio. We barely knew what a radio was. With the increased shift towards more virtual entertainment and less sensate life, I felt the story of Joshua and his fellow cats, was one the world needs now.

Triumphal CAT
Joshua after his performance Opening Night

Anotona says, "Joshua is a member of the All-Suburban 7th-8th Grade Concert Choir and the 8th Grade Choir---both spots were through audition. The All Suburban was an even greater honor since only eight students, two from each vocal range, were chosen among all the schools. They performed after an all-Saturday workshop this January at Missouri Baptist University. Joshua has been performing in church plays, drama ministry, and keyboard recitals since he was seven years old. Joshua is currently studying Shakespeare at North Kirkwood Middle School and hopes to try out for West Side Story in the summer." Both Joshua and his family live in Kirkwood Missouri.

Here is Tayé Foster Bradshaw's story, "A Cat Performs". --JGR

Antona with Keziah
Antona Smith, author and mother, and future author, Kiden

A CAT PERFORMS

The cafeteria turned theatre was a-buzz with the excited chatter of anxious parents, their little darlings, even as 6th-8th graders, were making their fall debut. It was his first time as a major character in a major, Broadway musical. The director, a theatre major in college, was told not to attempt this level of performance; he was told the kids were too young and too inattentive for such professional roles. He, along with the musical director and a cast of hundreds that included professional musicians, professional costume designers, and ultra-talented middle-school make-up artists stunned the audience with their ability to transform and create the imagined.

The announcement came as the lights in the room were dimmed. A collective hush fell over the room and the occupants sat straighter in the seat. The cell phones were instantly silenced and all eyes were on the stage, waiting for the first movement, the first note to announce the start. The hearts were beating fast as the culmination of weeks and weeks of three-hour rehearsals, sacrificed weekends, and crammed homework sessions was for this one moment, opening night.

The CATS creped across the stage as one-by-one the principal characters came out to sing the opening number, and then we saw him. The entire row did a collective gasp and uttered a hushed “wow.” He didn’t look like himself, his costume was amazing, his make-up impeccable, his wig magnificent, he was no longer Joshua, the outgoing, multi-limbed movement thirteen-year-old, he was Quaxo, the alter ego of Mr. Mistofolees in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “CATS.”

He sang the first solo amidst great anticipation as the first number ended and he leaped to stage left. He didn’t know his older brother, home on leave from the Navy, was sitting a few rows back, but saw him as he sang, “There’s a man over there.” in his distinctive tenor that could be heard amidst the chorus of voices.

CAT cast
The Cast, Final Performance

The musical went on through the night with each moment of his stage appearance and opportunity for the row of fans to sit in amazement at the talent of this goofy kid. His solos were commanding and his performance was memorable as the black and white cat with the “Lion King” mane of black & white hair. It took a moment for his little sisters, in the best seats of the house, on the floor at stage front with all the other elementary schoolers, to notice his saucer eyes beneath the layers of black & white professional makeup. The little fans sang along with him and by the third night of the performance, knew every line.

The crowd emerged from the cafeteria-theatre to become a throng in the hallway, waited in anticipation for their “star” to emerge from the dressing rooms. The wall-to-wall bodies made it next to impossible to see over the crowd. His big brother’s, 6’4” frame was the lookout for when the wigless, jeans-clad, still-made-up, budding star emerged from the cafeteria-table barricade. An escort of basket-carrying aids led the trail of actors to the Drama class door; shouts of “I’m proud of you” and “We love you!” filled the air as the excited thespians did their carpet walk.

The Opening Night excitement ended with Joshua and his family making a trip to Oberweis for a late snack of ice cream and chess. He was too thrilled. There was a thought that the crowds and noise would dissipate as the performances turned into night two and three, but no, there was still standing-room-only, the excited chatter, the collective hush, and the anticipation-laden focus on the stage. The performing arts program at North Kirkwood Middle School outdid themselves with taking on a professional production right down to the musical score, treatment of the actors as true artists, the grueling performance, the high expectations, it all culminated in a Broadway-worthy performance by 11, 12, and 13 year olds.

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