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The Arts

If we told you it was good, we'd be fe-lyin'

Generations of "Fredheads" revere Winnipeg's Fred Penner as a gentle, respectful, sincere family entertainer with the best possible values.

And before you call for my head on a platter, I feel the same way.

Fred Penner and a cat who doesn't deserve nine lives.

Fred Penner and a cat who doesn't deserve nine lives.

But it has to be said that the new musical play based on Penner's signature song, The Cat Came Back, is the theatrical equivalent of a hacked-up furball.

The production by Manitoba Theatre for Young People has public shows this weekend, as well as Feb. 10-12 and March 10-11. Penner and his co-star, Winnipeg-born actor Jay Brazeau, co-created the show with veteran children's director Kim Selody. The team approach may be part of the problem here.

Brazeau's over-the-top performance as Old Mr. Johnson, the cranky loner who shuns the persistent cat, is the best thing in the show. He makes a commanding entrance, looking like a Far Side cartoon come to life, and delights kids throughout with his goofy physical comedy.

The setting is outside a Chautauqua tent, where Penner plays a roving entertainer. That's probably an attempt to honour the folk song's 19th-century origins, but kids today don't know what a Chautauqua is.

The distraught Mr. Johnson shows up and tells Penner to "un-sing" The Cat Came Back and "give him his life back." From there, I couldn't detect any "unsinging," nor follow whether we proceeded into a flashback, or what.

The one-hour tale is confusing, disjointed, awkward, lacks a narrative through-line, and either fails to deliver the familiar episodes from the song, or muddles them up.

Penner is assisted by Jessee Havey and Paul Hooson, who serve as both musicians and puppeteers because it often takes both of them to operate the foam cat puppet.

The many-jointed rod puppet is designed by the accomplished Linda Leon and Shawn Kettner, who have done wonderful work on past MTYP shows. But the creature just doesn't work as an engaging character. It looks like one of those creepy cats with no fur. It lacks the quality of sweet mischief captured in Cordell Barker's Winnipeg-made animated film The Cat Came Back.

The show does have charming moments, like Mr. Johnson's camel ride and a bit where he tries to show the cat how to enjoy itself in a basket. But a basic, clearly escalating storyline is just not communicated.

The animal should be outrageously obnoxious -- hell to live with -- but it is not. We should identify with Mr. Johnson in loathing the kitty, but we don't because it's not anarchic enough.

The trickster-like cat should be repeatedly banished to a place that's outrageously impossible to survive, and then reappear, incredibly, as if nothing happened. But the puppetry and scene changes are too cumbersome, the narrative gets interrupted and the cat's reappearances don't have that miraculous quality.

Penner's jaunty songs are so rudimentary, they contribute only blandness.

The Cat Came Back is a bouncy nonsense song about the crazy, relentless things in life that we just can't overcome. It has no moral, it just makes you feel good to sing it. Yet, unbelievably, the play doesn't culminate in a sing-along of the ditty.

Penner, Brazeau and Selody have lost sight of the song's appeal. They think we need a wholesome, feel-good message about Mr. Johnson letting love into his life. They've missed the spirit of the source material by much more than a whisker.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2012 G12

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