Cats get a bad rap in literature. From “The Cat Who Walked by Himself” to “The Cat in the Hat” to the vengeful feline in “The Squaw” (the creepiest thing Bram Stoker wrote, including “Dracula”), they’re usually sly, selfish, anarchic, standoffish, chaos-inducing beasts with short fuses and long memories.
So when Pete the Cat rocks onstage in the play named for him, one wonders, “What will he smash?” The answers, in chronological order, are the defenses of an uptight second-grader, the rules governing time and space, and cultural stereotypes surrounding his species.
We meet Pete (effervescent Caleb Sigmon) at the front of his rock band, which includes Gloomy Toad and Gus the Platypus (Jennifer Poarch and Ashton Guthrie).
A cat-catcher informs Pete he’ll have to become a house cat and has been assigned to the Biddle family: Mom and Dad (Poarch and Guthrie), 5-year-old Olive (giddy Kayla Piscatelli) and 7-year-old Jimmy (Adrian Thornburg), who has more rules for proper behavior than the Torah. “Aha!” you might think. “Pete will go crazy and teach Jimmy to shed his anxiety.”
If you know the books by James and Kimberly Dean, you know that’s only half-right. Pete is impetuous but attentive to others’ needs, free-spirited but respectful of boundaries.
He may throw Jimmy into the bus — a VW microbus that whisks them to the moon, undersea and to Paris — but he won’t throw his pal under the bus. If harmony requires conformity, Pete’s willing to adapt.
The show is set for elementary schoolers, who responded to the primary colors in the script, the sets by Alessia Carpoca and the costumes by Kahei Shum McRae. Pete dresses in blue, rides a yellow skateboard, wears red sneakers and a red heart on his vest. But as we get to know him, Sigmon reveals a subtler emotional palette.
Thornburg makes anxiety appealing as Jimmy, and the two end (no spoiler alert) at the center of a group hug. Director-choreographer Ron Chisholm, abetted by music director Drina Keen, infuses this brief production with the manic energy it needs at first and the gentler warmth it needs at last.
I doubt the audience felt it slowing down; they just knew, like Pete, they longed for something more than a roll in the catnip. Many were at their first play. They ooohed loudly when the Biddle house slid offstage and unseen hands pushed on another set.
Whether or not they took away any of the story’s lessons about compromises and courage, they learned that theater = magic.
Pete the Cat
WHEN: Through May 5 at 7:30 p.m. Friday (except April 19), 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 4 p.m. Sunday (except April 21). Sensory-friendly performance at 4 p.m. April 28.
WHERE: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St. RUNNING TIME: 55 minutes without intermission.
DETAILS: 704-973-2828 or ctcharlotte.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.