by Lynn on March 10, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Young People’s Theatre, Toronto. Co-created by Fred Penner, Jay Brazeau and Kim Selody. Directed by Kim Selody. Music and lyrics by Fred Penner. Set, costume and puppet co-designed by Linda Leon. Puppet co-designed by Shawn Kettner. Lighting by Scott Henderson. Starring: Jay Brazeau, Jessee Havey, Paul Hooson, Fred Penner.

Presented by Young People’s Theatre until March 16.

The story is simple. Mr. Johnson has a loveable but annoying cat. Whenever Mr. Johnson is sitting in his comfy chair, trying to sleep, the cat would climb up behind him and stroke his bald head and scratch it. This annoys Mr. Johnson no end. No amount of shooing the cat away would keep it away. It always came back.

Finally Mr. Johnson had had enough. He put the cat in a sack and took the sack down to the water and the bag somehow accidentally fell in the water and that was the end of the cat, as far as Mr. Johnson is concerned.

While Mr. Johnson dosn’t seem to have a conscience, his neighbour? Conscience? Guitar-playing friend, Fred does. Fred sings often about the cat coming back and how Mr. Johnson treated him. Fred gently chastised Mr. Johnson for what he did to the cat and Mr. Johnson was properly regretful. He found he could sit in peace but he was lonely. He missed the cat. He tried to find solace by leaving the house to occupy his time. When he got home, still sad, there was the cat to greet him, purring, frisky, happy and not at all accusatory. As always, the cat came back. Mr. Johnson sat in his comfy chair, the cat climbed up behind him and stroked his bald head but this time did not seem to scratch it. Or if the cat did scratch Mr. Johnson didn’t mind.

It’s a sweet, gentle story of friendship, responsibility to ones pets and even the importance of music in telling the story. Fred Penner is a constant presence in Mr. Johnson’s world. He’s always right there singing a song that illuminates the moment, playing his guitar; offering sound effects. Penner gets his young audience to sing along at times, thus engaging them in the process. But for all its sweetness I found the production lacking and the story seems padded even at one hour.

As Mr. Johnson, Jay Brazeau is properly curmudgeonly, annoyed at the cat, Fred and his constant good will and singing and guitar playing. As Fred, Fred Penner offers a kindly, understanding antidote to Mr. Johnson’s sourness.

But I found their performances to be rough, unrehearsed and clunky, in spite of these two having done this show before. Linda Leon set is also problematic. The set of Mr. Johnson’s home is a raised platform on wheels, on which is his comfy chair. Attached to this are a door and a set of stairs leading down to the stage. Behind it is a large moveable backdrop suggesting the back wall of Mr. Johnson’s house. Jessee Havey and Paul Hooson are not only puppeteers and musicians, they also help in getting the platform on and off at various times. During the story telling they hold up multi-coloured strips of material attached to two rods that add another touch to the narrative. As the story moves from location to location, both Havey and Hooson plus a stage hand are constantly busy pushing the set pieces around; attaching the door; attaching the stairs, clicking latches in place; putting the cloth background in place; raising endless rods with coloured strips of material to add to the story as well as manipulate the puppet of the cat, which is also attached to think rods. Too much!! Surely, all concerned, especially director Kim Selody could have worked out the kinks and simplified the whole process.

The production was commissioned by the Manitoba Theatre for Young People and booked as a touring production by our own Young People’s Theatre. After seeing as many YPT productions as I have that are beautifully and economically written, designed and produced, I couldn’t help thinking that YPT could have done a better job of telling this simple story than this touring production has.

The Cat Came Back plays at Young People’s Theatre twice a day until March 16.

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