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Photos: CATS is a 'full circle' for TUTS director Ashley Wright

"CATS" director Ashley Wright, who grew up in Port Coquitlam, opens the popular musical to previews on Friday, July 5, 2024, at the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park.

Ashley Wright was 15 when he saw a show that changed his life.

The Port Coquitlam secondary student was in his parents’ home country of England when they took him to the original production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS at the New London Theatre in the mid-1980s.

On the flight back, inspired by the magic of the musical, Wright turned to his mom and told her he wanted to pursue a stage career, too.

Now, the award-winning actor is having a full circle moment as he takes the directorial reins for this summer’s Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) presentation of CATS, which opens to previews on July 5.

Wright is dedicating the run to his mom Thelka, who passed last year.

His decision to direct CATS, he told the Tri-City News on Wednesday, June 12, was “a bit of an experiment,” with his choreographer friend Julie Murphy.

Last spring, the pair saw the TUTS’ call for a director and choreographer and agreed to apply together. After an interview with the board, they were surprised to receive an email the following month inviting them to take on the leadership roles for the following summer.

“And it’s been a year of planning and dissecting the script,” Wright said, noting they’ve filtered through CATS fan pages online to get tips.

Working with a cast of 26, plus a pit orchestra led by Sean Bayntun, the pair zeroed in on the plot to give the story a punch for the audience. Based on the 1939 poetry collection by T.S. Eliot, the musical is set during the Jellicle Ball, an annual celebration where the Jellicles’ tribe cat leader, Old Deuteronomy, picks a feline to go to the “Heaviside Layer” (heaven) and come back to Earth with a new life.

“Sometimes, the plot can get lost because there’s so much going on,” Wright said, “so we wanted to pull out some lines for emphasis.”

The duo also had the challenge of mounting the sung-through musical in an outdoor venue: at Malkin Bowl at Stanley Park in Vancouver.

Wright said he and Murphy also had to get creative with stage lighting for show’s night scenes as it’s still light during summer evenings.

“It’s a serious play but it’s lots of fun,” Wright said. “We wanted to get that sense of what this play is about: Being part of a community, rooting for the underdog and the circle of life that we all undertake.”

Among the Tri-City cast members in CATS are:

  • Kadia Kindersley, Coquitlam
    • Jellylorum
  • Jenna Lamb, Coquitlam
    • Rumpleteazer
  • Elijah Sam, Coquitlam
    • Coricopat
  • Owen Scott, Port Moody 
    • Etcetera

Meanwhile, on alternating nights on the TUTS stage is School of Rock, which is in previews starting Sunday, July 7, and is based on the 2003 film starring Jack Black.

There are two cast members from Coquitlam:

  • Grayson Besworth
    • Billy Sanford
  • Ema Lake
    • Shanelle

Marquis Byrd, of Coquitlam, is a music directing fellow for School of Rock.

For tickets to see CATS or School of Rock, you can call the box office at 1-800-514-3849 or visit the Theatre Under the Stars’ website.