image-AE harbor Cats
Michelle McDonald, right, helped young dancers to express themselves though movement and song in a production of "Harbor Cats," an adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical "Cats." Photo courtesy Allan Bolding 

The Little Theater at El Camino High School in South San Francisco was packed on Saturday as friends and family gathered to watch the Michelle McDonald Gotta Dance performance of “Harbor Cats.” As the lights dimmed, Coastside dancers of all ages crept from the wings and down the aisles dressed as cats ready to attend the Jellicle Ball. 

Michelle McDonald knew from the beginning that she didn’t want to do traditional recitals for her Coastside dance studio. She produced her first performance of “Harbor Cats” — an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s hit Broadway musical “Cats” — in 1989, and this year’s performance was the fourth iteration of the show. 

The cast of 13 lead characters, all teenage students, did an outstanding job capturing the essence of the original Broadway show. They mesmerized the crowd with tap dancing, gymnastics, graceful ballet and sultry jazz moves, reminiscent of the original choreography, while portraying the unique personalities of beloved characters like Mr. Mistoffelees, Old Deuteronomy, Grizabella and Rum Tum Tugger with impressive stage presence.

The costumes and makeup were also extraordinary. Each dancer wore the distinctive “Cats” unitard and legwarmers adorned with fur and other accents, furry headpiece with ears and intricate makeup. 

McDonald said that making the costumes was a family affair, with daughter Jessie McDonald and husband Matt McDonald helping out.

“It took at least six months,” she said. “My husband airbrushed all the leotards, and my daughter created the rest of them, adding puff paint and markers and designing the wigs and makeup. Each cat was very specialized and authentic.” 

A supporting cast of more than 65 dancers shared the spotlight during the performance, with dances featuring classes from preschool to young teens. Each “kitten” had a simplified yet distinctive version of the “Cats” costume.

“They all had a choice in designing their own costume,” said McDonald. “They got to choose the color cat they wanted to be and the color fur.”

The littlest kittens were helped by the leads, who led the young performers on stage and guided them through their choreography. McDonald said that her teens often step in as mentors to the younger students, coming to their classes to learn their routines and acting as assistant teachers. Two students, Jennifer Martuscelli and Jamie McIntosh, also contributed choreography to several numbers.

The end of the performance was bittersweet, as McDonald and the rest of the cast recognized four graduates — Claire Katzenberger, Shay Heath, Meilani Bolding, and Maya Pratt-Bauman — who would be leaving the studio to attend college in the fall. 

Many had been wee kittens themselves during the previous “Harbor Cats” performance in 2011. 

The closeness of the cast was palpable, as the students distributed a flower to every performer and tearfully thanked their beloved teacher.

“They have so much fun. They love it so much,” said McDonald. “It becomes like one big family.” 

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