Growing up in Lucasville, Ohio, in the 1980s, he was 14 when he bought the soundtrack album from the iconic Broadway musical.
“I had never heard anything like it; I was completely just bowled over,” Bender said. “I said, 'I want to sound like the people on this album. I want to do what they do.’ That’s the kind of impact it had on me.”
Nearly 30 years later, Bender is thrilled to be portraying two felines (Bustopher Jones and Gus the Theatre Cat) in a Columbus Children’s Theatre production of “Cats," whose two-week run begins today at the Lincoln Theatre.
Director Ryan Scarlata said the auditions drew many hopefuls who hadn't previously auditioned for the children’s theater. Such heightened interest might be expected, given the history of the production: Simultaneously popular and polarizing, "Cats" ran for 18 years on Broadway beginning in 1982 — marking the fourth-longest run ever.
The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical features the Jellicle tribe of cats gathering to choose which one will be sent to the Heaviside layer and a new life.
One by one, characters are introduced as they audition to be chosen.
The production, considered innovative and groundbreaking, won the 1983 Tony Award for best musical.
Critics, though, decried its thin narrative, calling it shallow and pointless.
“You don’t meet a lot of people who are lukewarm about it, who say, `It’s OK,' or 'It’s kind of cool,'” said Krista Stauffer, who plays Jellylorum in the show. “The reaction tends to be one way or the other.”
Like Bender, Stauffer, 35, has fond childhood memories of the production. She remembers dancing to the soundtrack in the basement at home.
The original has been adapted in several ways, Scarlata said, including a change of setting — from the traditional junkyard to an abandoned circus.
Scarlata also brought in Jeff Fouch, artistic director of the Columbus Moving Company dance troupe, to handle choreography.
And, despite the criticism of its storyline, those involved say they have found plenty of meaning in the show.
One of the central characters, Grizabella, is an aging, once-glamorous cat who initially is shunned by the others.
“There’s a history there — that’s why she is shunned by the community,” Stauffer said. “But she is accepted by (Jellylorum). I think there’s a huge theme of acceptance and fitting in, and there are lessons there: Why are you shunning her? Why is she so horrible, you can’t accept her?
“And, my gosh, do we need that lesson right now.”