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Feature: CATS opens Lebanon festival

By
DALAL SAOUD

BEIRUT, Lebanon, July 5 (UPI) -- What will likely number among the last performances of the hugely popular musical CATS is at the same time its debut in the Middle East.

CATS, the creation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and winner of seven Tony Awards, began a six-night run this week at the historical site of the Beiteddine Palace in the Shouf mountains southeast of Beirut. It opened one of two summer festivals in Lebanon.

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It was its first such performance in the Middle East, let alone Lebanon, after the musical was watched by more than 50 million people in the world. CATS has been performed in 26 other countries and, since opening in London in 1981, has become both the West End's and Broadway's longest running musical ever.

But now, "this may be the last lifetime chance for people to see CATS," Hala Chahine, member of the Beiteddine Festival executive committee, told United Press International. Chahine said the performances at Beiteddine is likely among the last for CATS in the world.

CATS' worldwide reputation attracted some 2,500 spectators, including Western tourists, at the opening night and Chahine said "many bought their tickets for they heard so much about it." Tickets ranged between $30 and $124.

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The Beirut run includes a special treat: CATS' first open-air performance in the magical setting of the 18th-century Beiteddine Palace.

Spectator Maya Kadi was thrilled with the performance.

"I saw CATS in London and Broadway and both were in closed theaters," 30-year-old Kadi said. "In Beiteddine, the outdoor performance and the setting itself gave it a wilder dimension. I loved the sound track and the way actors move on stage just like felines."

Even the garbage dump setting was personalized to the country and Lebanese audience by including a car plate in Arabic.

"It was a major work and a challenge to build a whole production in its original shape and it's the first time in open air, with live orchestra," Chahine said. "We took the risk."

The 33 dancers from Britain, Australia and South Africa mingled with the audience, drawing laughter from many present children.

The musical started with a brief introduction of the story of CATS written by U.S. poet Thomas Stern Eliot, who was not familiar to the largely French-educated Lebanese.

"I had difficulties in understanding and following the musical. It is very imaginative. I liked the costumes and the dancing but I could not get the full meaning of the story," said Samar Saad. "Sadly, I am not acquainted to Eliot's works. If I have read his poems I would surely have enjoyed it better."

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Saad contrasted her experience this year with last year's festival, which featured a musical about the Notre Dame de Paris of French writer Victor Hugo. "I loved Notre Dame because I read about it since school days and was familiar with the characters."

CATS' Chahine said following Eliot's story line could indeed be more difficult for new spectators, but added that wouldn't keep them from enjoying the dancing and singing.

"Only very few knew about Eliot poetry but what we did is to introduce him to the Lebanese, for he is the biggest poet of his time," she said. "This is a big achievement by itself."

CATS launched Lebanon's summer festivals which are to feature other famous international singers and shows.

Among them will be internationally renowned tenor Jose Carreras, Algerian-born Rai star Khaled and Lebanese famous singer Feyrouz who will also perform at Beiteddine.

Against a backdrop of Roman ruins of Baalbeck in eastern Lebanon, the festival will also present a mixture of classical music by Alban Berg Quartet, modern Brazilian music by Gilberto Gil and the fabulous Lord of the Dance group.

Organizers hope the festivals help Lebanon recover its pre-war position as the cultural hub of the Middle East.

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