The University of Alabama

Hermitage Cats Save the Day With Jazz and Feline Detective Work

“Hermitage Cats Save the Day,” a musical rendering of the book “Anna and the Hermitage Cats,” will premiere at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 6, in the Moody Music Building concert hall.

Chris Brubeck

Chris Brubeck

The music is by Chris Brubeck, and the book and lyrics are by Mary Ann Allin, who co-wrote the original children’s book.

“On one level, it is a simple detective story – the search for a priceless ancient Egyptian cat figurine that has been stolen,” says Allin, who is an arts consultant based in Washington, D.C. “On another level, it is an allegory of international relations – how we must work together to solve problems.”

Allin wrote the musical several years after publishing the book. She describes the production as a Russian-American partnership that expresses culture and music through the characters of the legendary “guard” cats that live in St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum. The cats embody different historical figures and countries.

“A good story is often a mixture of fact and fantasy,” Allin said. “This one – ‘Hermitage Cats Save the Day’ – is enlivened by Chris Brubeck’s new jazz score.”

Dr. Diane Boyd Schultz

Dr. Diane Boyd Schultz

Brubeck, son of the late Dave Brubeck, composed the music after receiving funding from UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, Nestlé Purina PetCare of Russia, Parsons & Whittemore, the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Brannen-Cooper Fund. The score is written for 10 instruments, including two flutes, and three actors with projected images and audience participation. Dr. Diane Boyd Schultz, UA associate professor of flute, has a leading role as a clever cat named Amber.

UA was chosen for the premiere of the musical because of its relationship to Allin, flutist Maxim Rubtsov and trumpeter Vladislav Lavric. Rubtsov and Lavric are principal players in Moscow’s Russian National Orchestra; Allin worked with them in the United States.

From 2008 to 2010, they were in-residence at UA. The residency created a bond among these musicians, Allin and UA’s School of Music. Allin, Brubeck and others involved chose UA as a starting location because of the relationships they had developed with the faculty and musicians over the past years.

“We are returning to Tuscaloosa due to the warmth and hospitality of those in The University of Alabama’s School of Music, who nurtured friendships as well as professional relationships, including links to other departments on campus,” Allin said.

Paul Looney, artistic director emeritus of Theatre Tuscaloosa, will direct the U.S. performances. Several UA professors and students are performing or playing in the production in Tuscaloosa along with Rubtsov and Lavric. The show also will be performed in Washington, D.C., at the National Gallery of Art before heading to St. Petersburg, Russia, and a performance at the Hermitage Theatre on the annual Day of Cats.

Dr. Pam Penick, a UA School of Music instructor, is the local liaison and grant writer for the production. She said the musical is a “cultural exchange” for audiences, especially those ages 6-12.

“Everyone will have fun!” Penick said. “The jazz score will showcase an American musical genre that is very special to the South.”

The cast, crew and others involved in the play added an outreach component that targets children, specifically those with disabilities. When Rubtsov and Lavric were in Tuscaloosa in 2010, they performed at the RISE School, a model pre-school on campus for children born with disabilities such as Down syndrome. “In Russia, children with disabilities are not mainstreamed as they are here in the U.S.,” Penick said. “The Hermitage Cats Project became a way to give meaningful musical experiences to children with disabilities.”

Rubtsov and Lavric introduced musical therapy concepts in Russia after their UA experience with the help of music therapist Dawn Sandel. Sandel, a vocalist and guitarist, sings the only song in the musical production – a classic blues that Brubeck composed especially for her voice.

Penick said Martha Cook, director of RISE, and Sandel have been involved with the project since the beginning and have traveled to St. Petersburg for a workshop and meetings. Certain grades at RISE, Alberta Elementary and Tuscaloosa Arts Magnet School will be invited to the dress rehearsal at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 6, with free admissions.

Admission for the 6 p.m. performance is $10 for adults, $5 for children younger than 12 and $3 for UA students. Tickets are on sale at the Moody Concert Hall box office. Tickets can also be purchased online at uamusic.tix.com. The production is open to the entire community, from elementary school-age children to senior citizens.