Cool 'Pete' winning hearts of children
For more than a decade, “Pete the Cat” has been the cool blue feline that stars in the best-selling children's book series by Kimberly and James Dean.
The books were actually inspired by a scrawny black kitten that artist James Dean from Fort Payne, Ala. adopted from a local shelter in 1999 and made the subject of many paintings while he was a student at Auburn University.
It took Theatreworks USA — a New York City-based nonprofit theater company dedicated to providing quality professional theater programming to family audiences in the U.S. and Canada — to bring Pete and his coolness to the stage.
The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is presenting the area premiere of Theatreworks' new musical production of “Pete the Cat” at the Byham Theater and six area schools as part of its Citizens Bank Children's Theater Series. A total of eight performances will take place Jan. 8 to 15.
The show focuses on Pete's adventures when he joins the Biddle family and has to win the affection of Jimmy Biddle, a second-grader who is too busy with school work to appreciate the cool cat's carefree attitude. When Pete offers to help Jimmy, who is struggling in art class, the two set out on an excursion that takes them all the way to Paris and back in a Volkswagen bus.
The show's associate producer is Zi Alikhan, whose production credits include “Ripcord” at Manhattan Theatre Club and “It Shoulda Been You!” on Broadway, both with David Hyde Pierce.
He also founded and served as artistic director for the Basic Theatre Project, a New York performance collective focused on creating socially aware performances for the millennial generation, and has directed several college and university productions.
About “Pete the Cat,” he says, “This show is really smart from every aspect. It is funny and touching and speaks to both young and teen audiences and parents, too. It is really a unique piece, because its music spans several genres.”
Pittsburgh is the first stop for the current tour that runs through mid-June, starring Thaddeus Kolwicz of Roswell, Ga., in the title role and his first production with Theatreworks USA.
His credits include off-Broadway productions of “90210 the Musical!” and “National Lampoon's Bayside the Musical.”
The young actor says portraying the cool cat decked out in blue jeans and shirt and his signature red high-top sneakers is a lot of fun. He especially likes being a part of the show's 11 original musical numbers.
“I was surprised about how good the music is; it's really excellent,” Kolwicz says. “I'm singing practically the whole time I'm on stage. I get to tour all over the U.S. and Canada and visit a lot of grand theaters. I'm so pumped about it.”
He is looking forward to performing in local schools as part of the “Pete the Cat” tour and recalls the joy he experienced as a young student watching similar theater productions.
“I remember when I was in elementary and middle school and the highlight of my day would be when a group would come to our school to perform. I am reflecting on that and hope that I will be the highlight of the students' day.”
Theaterworks USA's musical production of “Pete the Cat” features book and lyrics by Sarah Hammond and music by Will Aronson. The show was originally directed and choreographed by Dan Knechtges, whose Broadway credits include “Lysistra Jones,” “Xanadu” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The 50-minute musical is recommended for audiences ages 3-9.
Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.