Crazy fun with Pete the Cat

Oregon Children's Theatre's musical version of the popular kids' books is bright and tuneful and a treat for kids and adults alike

“That was kind of crazy. Also kind of funny, right?”

– Pete the Cat (Dave Cole), Pete the Cat: The Musical

Pete himself might as well have been reviewing this lively, fun, infectious musical, the latest from the ambitious Oregon Children’s Theatre, running through Feb. 18 in the Newmark Theatre.

To start its 30th season last October, OCT teamed with six other children’s theater companies around the nation to commission and premiere Judy Moody & Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt, an adaption of a popular children’s book series by Megan McDonald. This time around, it’s another ambitious children’s book adaptation – Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat tales – that Artistic Director Stan Foote has been trying to bring to the Portland stage since at least 2014. He finally secured rights to put on this musical adaptation, which was commissioned and developed by New York’s Theatreworks USA.

Pete goes to school and breaks the rule. Photo: Owen Carey

While the storyline doesn’t matter all that much – Pete is forced to try out being a housecat for a week when he’s caught by the cat-catcher, and ends up with the Biddles, where he takes on a mission to inspire second-grader Jimmy (17-year-old actor Jackson Wells) to paint something beautiful to pass art class. What matters is the entertainment, and Pete the Cat and company deliver it in spades.

It all hinges on the relationships Pete the Cat has with those Biddle kids. Pete is the wild-and-reckless rock ‘n’ roller to Jimmy’s straight man. The double act of this pairing is especially highlighted when Pete has to sleep in Jimmy’s room, where Jimmy explains the lengthy rules and then asks Pete to repeat them. Then, of course, there’s the question of who will sleep on the bed. Remember, Pete has never been a housecat, so the prospect of a bed is … well, I’ll let him explain it: “Oh, dude. I want to jump on that bed so bad.” Cole’s physical comedy is excellent throughout the production, including here. A lesser production than this one, which is  directed adeptly by Jessica Wallenfels, might have played this scene out longer for more cheap laughs.

Then there’s the relationship between Pete and the youngest Biddle, 5-year-old Olive, played by the supremely talented Aida Valentine, who is in seventh grade. Olive loves Pete. I mean, loves him (she eventually proposes marriage). But it’s a little tricky, since he’s a cat and she’s allergic. Her pining for Pete leads to many of the production’s best moments, both because Cole gets to play the scaredy-cat and because Valentine lights up the stage every time she’s on it – but especially so when she sings. The Sneezing Song is arguably the best number among an entire play of exceptional musical numbers (music by Will Aronson). The song’s chorus is literally a sneeze. And it somehow works.

The writing and humor are sharp (book and lyrics are by Sarah Hammond), for both children and adults in attendance. When Jimmy says “It’s the last week of second grade. I have A LOT of tests!” the parents might laugh louder than the children, but there are plenty of jokes and pratfalls to keep kids of all ages in stitches – such as Pete painting with his tail, or one of the Biddles asking “when can I sit on him?” after being told they are cat-sitting.

Cool cat: everybody rocks, everybody rolls. Photo: Owen Carey

Every member of the acting company does double or triple duty, with everyone but Cole playing multiple parts (and Cole, as Pete, is in every scene). Rounding out the cast are Rob Lauta as Dad, Pete’s bandmate Gus the Platypus, and other smaller parts; and Megan Misslin as Mom, Jimmy’s screechy teacher and Pete the Cat fangirl Mrs. Creech, another bandmate of Pete’s, and other roles. Each cast member is excellent in multiple roles, truly taking on different personas, not to mention sometimes leaving the stage and changing character during one musical number (and singing as both characters in a single song). It’s a true feat of acting and direction.

And let’s not forget those musical numbers. You might go into Pete the Cat: The Musical determined not to have a good time; this is a children’s play, after all. But midway through Happy Housecat or VW Bus you’re likely to find your foot involuntary tapping along. And how clever is it, in a musical about a cat, to include an uplifting song about getting yourself out from under the couch? Not to mention the cool scenic design (by Sean O’Skea) trick that pulls off actually putting two of our characters under an ordinary-sized couch.

The most surprising aspect of this superb production is artistic director Foote’s revelation in his playbill notes that this was a late add to the season, because how could he wait another year after finally getting the green light to put on this project he had spent years hoping to do?

I can confirm that Pete the Cat: The Musical was worth the wait.

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Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Pete the Cat: The Musical continues through Feb. 18 in the Newmark Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway, Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

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