After 20 years, the M.A.D. program can now boast it has outlasted even Cats.
How fitting that the Music, Arts and Drama 11/12 class will be performing the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical — the second-longest running show on Broadway — over the next two weekends at the Wood Street Centre.
Cats tells the story of a feral tribe called the Jellicles and their annual decision to send one cat to the afterlife to begin anew.
Told solely through movement and song, only the well-known “Memory” is not based on the poems of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
Upon entering M.A.D.’s home in the 1950s-era Wood Street building, there is no mistaking it for anything but a school. However, the theatre is well into the process of being transformed from a former gymnasium into an oversized junkyard.
Amidst this feline habitat is director and teacher Mary Sloan.
“Cats is just magical. It’s a singing and dancing extravaganza,” she says.
Cats was selected based on the aptitude for dance of this semester’s class.
“We’ve thought about it year after year but we’ve never done it before,” says Sloan. “We always take a look at the group we’ve got and this year we’ve got a real dancing group and we thought ‘Well, if we’re going to do Cats we better do it this year.'”
The dancing has been coming along beautifully under the instruction of dance teacher Dale Cooper, but the music has admittedly been a challenge.
“It’s really difficult music to sing lots of harmonies,” says Sloan. “We’ve been really working hard because it’s very complicated music. It’s typical Andrew Lloyd Webber.”
Cast members Michaela Atkinson and Santana Berryman emphatically agree: “The music is so high. We’re both sopranos and we find it really challenging to sing.”
Still, it’s the music that makes the magic.
“I love the variety,” says Sloan. “I listen to it over and over because I’m doing the sound, and I never get tired of it. It’s so powerful.”
Berryman and Atkinson, playing Grizabella the pariah and twins Coricopat and Tantomile respectively, nonetheless feel confident and excited about the show.
Sloan and fellow teacher Jeff Nordlund have seemingly mastered the task of musical theatre boot camp. They undertake a staggering six productions each year, with a major show like Cats taking five to six weeks to produce.
This particular class has been together since February. While some of the students have attended M.A.D. before, kids may enter the program without prior experience.
But students and parents must understand that the program is no mere stroll on the catwalk.
“We tell them it’s rigorous and it’s fast,” Sloan says. “You don’t have time to be shy, you don’t have time to be away on big family trips.”
Still, students never seems to get left behind.
Each applicant must participate in an interview, prepare an assignment of their own and actively engage in a participatory day. After that, the students are largely self-selected.
“You just assume everybody is going to make it and everyone does, everyone rises to the top.
“There’s always a goal here. It gives an urgency because you’d better learn this because there’s going to be a performance at the end!”
The program also accommodates conventional academic work. Students write both the English and Social Studies exams. The day of the preview, two students will be writing the standardized language proficiency test.
M.A.D. relies on the support and talent within the community. For Cats, vocal teacher Barbara Chamberlain has been working closely with the students. They also benefit from workshops held by Brad L’Ecuyer, the musical director for the Guild’s Chicago, and will be working with local actor Brian Fidler following Cats.
For Sloan, a special treat is when a former M.A.D. students return in a professional capacity to teach components of the program. On this particular day, former student and current teacher Carolyn Westberg was on hand to help students with their makeup prior to a full dress rehearsal.
The makeup room is calm, however.
“The nice thing about a group like this is that they’re so independent, they can just go off and do their own makeup,” comments Sloan.
Student Jessie Jacobs agrees.
“One of the best things I’ve learned here is how to be independent.”
Cats is playing at the Wood Street Centre May 3,4,9,10, and 11 at 8 p.m. and May 5 at 2 pm. Tickets are $18.