NAPLES — In a cut-off shirt and black tights, the teen strutted and flaunted his lean, muscular physique, singing and dancing amid a swarm of girls purring and clawing to get his attention.
“Rum Tum Tugger is a curious cat,” he sang.
“And there’s no doin’ anything about it,” he belted out while shaking his hips to the beat, causing one girl to swoon.
Joseph Federico’s sexy tomcat was far cry from his usual persona. The 16-year-old Gulf Coast High School varsity football player was out of shoulder pads and in dance shoes, rehearsing for the Naples Players KidzAct Youth Theatre’s rendition of “Cats” on Wednesday. He hip-rolled through his role as Rum Tum Tugger, the limelight-loving ladies cat at one of the last rehearsals before the opening of the high energy musical on Tuesday at the Sugden Theatre.
“Sure, they tease,” said Federico about the response he gets from his teammates, “But when push comes to shove, those guys won’t have the guts to come up here and sing and dance in front of a bunch of people.”
There are eight nightly performances, running through Sunday with matinees on the weekend. The show has an all-youth cast of teenagers age 14 to 18 playing the adult cat roles and kids age 8 to 13 playing the kitten roles.
“It’s a uniquely different and challenging dance show,” said Charles Fornara, the director and musical director. “We wanted to challenge them and give, for many of them, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“Cats” is known for its difficult, highly-animated song numbers and vigorous dance routines. Charles Fornara and his wife Dawn, who is also co-director and choreographer, said they did not hold back despite the cast’s age and experience. Dawn Lebrecht Fornara kept most of the choreography from the original Broadway show. Charles Fornara did not simplify the songs or harmonies, keeping the same version professionals put on.
“I knew the singing and dancing was going to be tough when I tried out,” Federico said, confirming their decision, “but I had no idea it was going to be this difficult.”
Charles Fornara is a three-year “Cats” veteran, playing Old Deuteronomy in Hamburg, Germany, and serving as booth singer, rehearsal pianist and assistant to the music director in Stuttgart. He said because of his experience, he holds the actors he works with to a high standard.
“I know it’s supposed to be soft, but I can’t hear you,” said Charles Fornara to the group on stage, prompting them to repeat the verse louder. “Thank you. Now that sounds better.”
Dawn Fornara has also acted in the musical, playing Bombalurina at the Palace Theatre in New Hampshire. Like her husband, she expects quality from her students and puts in many extra hours to help them do their best.
“Move back into the light,” Dawn Fornara said, “Baby, you have to be on zero every time.”
Charles Fornara admitted that working with teenagers comes with challenges.
“They have to fully commit to cat behavior,” Charles Fornara said, “It’s really hard for these kids, especially at this age where they don’t want to take a chance and get made fun of.”
Many of the young actors have performed in musicals for KidzAct before, but most don’t have a dance background and only a handful take additional dance or singing classes outside of the program.
“This is a show written for professionals who are real triple threats — singers, dancers, actors,” Charles Fornara said. “To get them to sing full out, dance full out and act 100 percent of the time in a kitty way is the biggest challenge.”
“What is not a challenge is getting them to try,” he added.
It has not been uncommon for the teen actors to show up an hour prior to rehearsal in order to get extra help or polish their routines. Half an hour before practice, the entire cast was singing and dancing in line, kicking their legs to “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats.”
Matthew Striegel arrived early to practice his role with cast members even though his part as Old Deuteronomy, the leader of the show’s Jellicle tribe, is light on dancing.
“You want to impress so many people who have seen the show and who haven’t seen the show,” said Striegel, 17, a senior at Barron Collier High who has performed in five shows this year at the Sugden. “It’s a tough job so every little bit counts.”
While the teenagers were on stage, the younger kids rehearsed in the lobby for their roles as kittens. Taking the parts required them to learn the natural movements of cats by taking classes and watching Youtube videos of furry felines.
Frankie Federico, 9, an honor roll student at Laurel Oak Elementary and Joseph Federico’s younger brother, went through his dance routine with the other 22 kittens. Like many kids, he likes to play with toys. His favorite number has him using a pitchfork.
“I like doing the Siamese cats,” Federico said.
“He likes that number because he can use props,” his mom replied, laughing.
This is the first time KidzAct is putting on the musical. Megan McCombs, the director of KidzAct, chose “Cats” because it incorporated the teens and the younger kids.
“It’s a real learning experience for the younger ones to look up to the teens and see what they can aspire to,” McCombs said.
Halfway through rehearsal, with frequent prompts to stop by the director, choreographer and lighting manager, the young actors started to show signs of fatigue from dancing and singing for two hours. But they never displayed any lack of enthusiasm. Their notes were still on point, their leaps and kicks just as high and their smiles just as big.
“I am just so happy to be here,” said Striegel, drenched in sweat, during a five minute break, ”I never really get tired.”