Being cast in CATS is just ‘purrfect’ for Donna Vivino

Brandon Michael Nase as Old Deuteronomy in the the North American tour company of Cats. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Donna Vivino has a rescue cat with a big personality named Blaze. She also helps a local centre care for felines that are abandoned or mistreated.

So it sort of makes sense that the New Jersey native would get a role in the touring company of CATS that is coming into Ottawa next week like a March lion as part of a celebration of the purrfect history of this famous Broadway musical. Except, until she got her role, she had never seen the musical.

“It had just skipped me. I was a little young when it first came out and then it kept running and running and I thought I would see it eventually.” But she didn’t. She was doing Wicked when the revival opened. She was in Ottawa as Elphaba in the touring company.

Donna Vivino

“When the audition for the tour came up and I was asked to sing Memory, it was still without having seen the show.

“I saw it for the first time about a month and a half ago” when she was joining the company.

She’s playing Grizabella, a cat long past her prime who longs for the companionship of the pride. The role originated with Elaine Paige in London’s West End in 1981 and on Broadway with Betty Buckley in 1982. The character is not included in T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, but she is the subject of an unpublished poem called Grizabella, the Glamour Cat given to Andrew Lloyd Webber by Eliot’s widow Valerie Eliot.

Vivino gets to sing the classic song from the musical, a tune that has been covered by people such as Barbra Streisand.

Grizabella, in Vivino’s take, is a cat at the end of the road. She is scarred physically and emotionally and the other cats have shunned her.

Dan Hoy as Munkustrap in the North American tour of CATS. Photo: Matthew Murphy

“She wants so badly to be back with the group. The audience can decide what her back story is, but for whatever reason she has become an outcast. She’s at the end of her rope.”

Vivino’s sense is that Grizabella’s sort of a prodigal cat. As the show reveals cats have very distinct personalities. She knows all about that.

“I have a cat (Blaze) and he does own me. I’m an ambassador for Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida. I am an animal lover, but I really cats.

“They will let you know when they aren’t happy with you and they’ll ignore you and then when they want affection, it’s on their terms.”

Costuming and makeup in the role of any cast member in CATS is something to behold. The actors perform in eight shows a week and travel on Mondays.

“Everybody does their own makeup in the show. I get to the theatre about an hour and a half to two hours before to start my makeup.

“For me at first I was intimidated by it, but now I love it. I find it very meditative.”

She joined the show in the first week of February. When she arrived she was shown how to get in costume and makeup. That one time training is all she got.

She does get to create the character every night. Every cat has their own distinct look. The makeup materials are provided and the actors do what they are instructed to do.

“But everybody’s hands are going to apply the cosmetics differently even while following the basic instructions. Ultimately my face is my face and my Grizabella will be different from someone else’s.”

After the face is prepared she puts on a unitard and other various pieces of fur to complete the transformation.

“Everything from the neck up is makeup and a wig.”

She doesn’t channel Blaze, who is a typical grey tabby, when she is getting into the role of Grizabella. He’s too independent.

“He doesn’t like any other animals.”

So is this a human dressed as a cat or is there more transformation going on here?

“We are humans playing cats, no matter what. But I think that when we have cats as pets we can’t help but endow human characteristics on them.”

“Physically the actors are all trying to move like cats. There is a lot of work on that movement. Andrew Lloyd Webber has created distinct personalities for each cat character. The songs and dancing do the work for you.”

The song Memory is an example, Vivino says. “Lines like, I know what happiness was and Touch me, these are human sentiments. The show has to appeal to people otherwise it would not still be running.

“I think the show touches people and it is also so dazzling to look at.”

This current tour is an extension of a Broadway revival of CATS that returned to the stage a couple of years ago. There was some reworking of the choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler of Hamilton fame giving it a modernized take.

The movie version of CATS was not successful. Does the musical need to be live to be more successful?

“Perhaps the movie, which I haven’t seen, shows us there is nothing quite like live theatre. You want to see the live dancing and the whole theatre package.”

People do tell her after the show that they prefer the musical.

“I think there’s nothing like see a live version of CATS especially when the actors come out into the audience.”

She’ll be on the tour until the end of June, adding the she hasn’t been on the road in 10 years. She has a four year old son so that commitment is important.

She can handle the grind however. Vivino was the original Cosette in Les Miserables on Broadway as a child. “I’ve been doing this since I was seven. I know how this goes. It definitely is a challenge as a mom doing it but my son loves CATS.

“Seeing it through a child’s eyes has been awesome. For example kids really love Mr. Mephistopheles. He’s the Disney prince of the show.”

Blaze, meanwhile, doesn’t mind staying behind.

Broadway Across Canada presents CATS
Southam Hall, NAC
When: March 10 to March 15
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.