If director Joseph Fowler has any anxiety about bringing one of the most well known musicals ever to the Dubai stage , then he does a very good job of hiding it.
“Cats is an institution. Anyone that knows anything about theatre would have heard of and seen Cats. So with that kind of reputation, it is a lot to live up to,” he says, speaking calmly but a little hurriedly as he takes a break from rehearsals. “That’s why we’ve challenged ourselves on every level, from music to choreography to costume and lighting. It’s a real challenge, but its one that everyone involved has really stepped up to and I’m really proud to be the captain cat steering the cat ship.”
The Andrew Llyod Webber musical, based on a collection of poems by T.S. Eliot,  made its debut on London’s West End in 1981, before becoming a multi award-winning global phenomenon, and one of the longest running musical productions ever. For its Dubai debut this Tuesday, part of a semi-professional community theatre project, Fowler has enlisted a number of theatre veterans and a multi-national cast from the UAE .
“We’ve come at it from a different angle. So those who have seen Cats and are familiar with it, I urge them to come and see it again because they are going to see a version of Cats they have never seen before. We’ve really made it our own,” he says.
“We have five professional musical theatre stars from the UK reprising roles they’ve already done for international shows. And we have an international cast sourced from here. There will be [in total] 67 people on stage. I think we might be one of the biggest Cats casts ever.”
While set to Webber’s iconic tunes, every other aspect of the production has been re-imagined for the Dubai stage, adds Fowler, who has won multiple awards in his 12-year career spanning both theatre and films.
“The choreography is 100 per cent created by us. It has been a challenge but exciting, because we’ve made it our own, which is great too for people who have seen the show because they will see a new show with songs they know.
“We’ve also gone and done a lot of our own research. We’ve gone a little bit further than maybe a lot of other productions have into our research into how cats behave, their nature and things like that.”
Planning began late last year, says Fowler, who’s also brought other musicals including West Side Story and Hairspray to the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (Ductac ).
“Our approach is like anything we would with any fully fledged production, from the creative process to the structure to casting and the initial rehearsals and the model box, which is like a dollhouse version of the stage so it comes as a creative reference point. From how the show will look to lighting and design, it’s been a long process. But success is in the detail.”
Success will also be in its casting and Fowler has brought one of his old friends, Alison Jiear, to play one of the title characters, Grizabella, a role made famous by actress and singer Elaine Page.
“I haven’t played this role before, so it’s nice to have the opportunity,” says Jiear, a theatre veteran and performer. “I get to sing the title song. It’s a fantastic song. I’ve sung it so many times in various concerts but never performed it in costume. So it’s been very nice to get into character.”
Memory, the show’s title song and most famous number, has been sung by some of the world’s most well-known singers over the years.
Jiear, best known for her award-winning role in Jerry Springer: The Opera, says preparing for Grizabella, a former “Glamour Cat” was quite a challenge.
“She is quite a sad character, which is very different to who I am as a person. I am very happy and jovial and for Grizabella everything is bad for her,” she says. “Personally, I can identify with what it might be like to have had a very glamorous career and at the moment she is at rock bottom and she is coming back to seek acceptance from her clan. I can imagine what it might be like maybe in 20 or 30 years when I’m not performing any more, but I am happy that I can say I cant identify with her.
“But it’s like any role. You have to get yourself into character.”
Jiear who has also dabbled in films, has just returned from filming the movie version of the musical Les Miserables starring Hugh Jackman, Russel Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen, Amanda Seyfried and Helena Bonham Carter. The film, scheduled for a December release, is directed by Tom Hooper, best known for the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech.
“I might have rubbed shoulders with Hugh Jackman,” teases Jiear, who plays one of the ensemble cast in the film. “But I was working closely with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who play the Thenardiers. A lot of musical theatre actors and actresses are a part of it. Cohen was pretty crazy.”
In Cats, Michael Cotton will reprise his role of Munkustrap, the musical’s narrator and son of patriarch of the cat tribe.
“It’s been changed around a bit, so I have more songs. I am the only person who speaks to the audience. They are having me come through into the world of the audience and ask them to come into the world of cats.”
Cotton, who started acting in theatre when he was just 13 years old, has appeared in many West End and UK tours, including Oliver!, West Side Story, Cats and My Fair Lady.
“This production is interesting because it’s community theatre,” he says. “[For] some of them, it’s their first time on stage and that’s brilliant for us. We’re so used to working with people that do theatre all the time and sometimes there is not much enthusiasm because it becomes just like a job for some. So, we’re feeding on the enthusiasm too and that’s been interesting.”
If not the production, director Fowler hopes it’s the community aspect that will attract people.
“Everyone in this company has worked incredibly hard. I really, really hope that everyone will seize the opportunity to come support us,” he says.