Interview, photos and video: Oklahoma native Keri Rene Fuller pounces on her first national tour opportunity with 'Cats'
An abbreviated version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
More than a 'Memory'
Oklahoman Keri Rene Fuller is on her first national tour with 'Cats,' and the iconic show is returning to OKC
The old quip “it was better than ‘Cats’” doesn’t apply to Keri Rene Fuller, if only because it’s hard for her to imagine much better than “Cats” at the moment.
“This is a bucket list item for the majority of those on the stage, and to be able to perform it and see the country simultaneously is a huge gift,” Fuller said in a recent phone interview.
“The first preview, it was the first time that I had ever received I guess applause on that kind of scale before. And I just remember being so overwhelmingly grateful to be given this gift. I was hyperventilating; I know that I was ugly crying, it was. I turned back, and I looked at my cast and just the floodgates opened.
"I hope that there will be other experiences in my life like that, but that one definitely will always be the first time I truly, truly felt like I was exactly where I needed to be at the exact moment that I needed to be there.”
The Oklahoma native embarked on her first national tour in January, after nabbing the key role of Grizabella in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous feline musical. The new tour, based on the beloved show 2016 Broadway revival, gambols into Oklahoma City for performances Tuesday-May 26 at Civic Center Music Hall.
“It’ll be so nice to return to the Civic Center. It’ll be a very full circle … to come back all these years later and perform on the same stage in Oklahoma,” said Fuller, adding that her mom has been compiling a long list of when various family members and friend will attend.
Born and raised in Bethany, Fuller, 25, said she received a strong theater education at Classen School of Advanced Studies as well as at the former Poteet and Reduxion theaters. In 2011, she was cast in all four of Lyric Theatre’s summer productions: “Oliver,” “Ragtime,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “A Chorus Line.”
An alumna of Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio, she made her Broadway debut in February 2018 as part of the ensemble for “Waitress.”
“Oh gosh, it was wonderful. Such an amazing experience,” she said. “I was very, very lucky to get that gig.”
After five months with “Waitress,” she started rehearsals for “Cats” in December, although she was initially skeptical about trying out for the iconic show.
“When I got the call from my agent about having an audition for this role, I quite literally laughed into the phone. I was like, ‘There is no way that they are gonna cast a 25-year-old Grizabella, absolutely no way.’ And so I went and had an amazing audition and then was like, ‘OK, that was an experience that I will treasure’ and was not expecting it to go any further because it had always been cast older,” she said.
“With Grizabella, there’s nothing in the text that says she’s old or that she has aged. It just says that she has fallen on hard times essentially. So, that’s something that I kind of have to go to from an acting standpoint.”
Based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats,” the musical, which won seven Tony Awards for the original Broadway iteration that remains one of the longest-running shows there, is about a tribe of felines gathering to decide which of its members will be reborn. Grizabella is a former “glamour cat” who has lost her shine and been cast out, and as an Oklahoman who took the risk of pursuing theater to Ohio and then to New York City, Fuller said she can relate to the ill-fated feline.
“I kind of approach it from the standpoint of how she is this woman that just dreams too big to stay in one place, and I very much identify with that,” Fuller said. “I was blessed enough that I flourished, but that’s not always the case. And I’m going at it from a standpoint of, OK, well, she took a leap of faith and she went to go chase dreams or chase fame … and she has fallen now. She can no longer rely on that, so all she wants to do is come home. And because she left, the tribe sees that as a betrayal and therefore does not want to accept her. So, I think that that’s a difference in the way that I approach this role in comparison to other Grizabellas.”
Makeup and ‘Memory’
Joining the “Cats” cast involves some specific responsibilities, Fuller said, as all the actors do their own makeup to create the distinctive look of their catty character, which for her include black tear tracks and smeared red lips.
“Back in December when were in rehearsal, when we weren’t being used at the rehearsal stage, we would go have a makeup tutorial,” she said. “I definitely think that putting on the makeup is extremely meditative.”
Since she dances in the opening number as the younger, happier Grizabella, Fuller said she then has 11 minutes to change her costume, makeup and wig to become the fallen, sorrowful character.
But perhaps the biggest obligation she has taken on with Grizabella comes at the climax of every performance when she sings “Memory,” one of the most beloved songs in musical theater history.
“I definitely am extremely lucky. It’s also a huge responsibility to carry,” she said. “It’s a double edge sword because … I go out there, and I just completely lose myself. And at the same time, with all of those amazing feelings, there’s also, ‘OK, this is “Memory.” I have to do it justice.’ … I take it very seriously, and so it is something that I’m very relieved when everything goes as planned. Then when it doesn’t, it’s like, OK, well here’s what I have to do to make it better next time.’”
Another aspect of the pressure and privilege of “Cats” is that it is a perennial family favorite among theater-goers, and she is aware that, for many children, it may be their first theatrical experience. The new tour marks the first time in nine years that the musical has traveled to OKC.
“It’s a lot of generations bringing other generations. So many grandmothers have brought their daughters when they were younger, and now those daughters are bringing their daughters. It really is such a generational piece because it has been … iconic for so long,” Fuller said. “Seeing those kids at the stage door who have never seen this show before and who are just truly flabbergasted by it is one of the highlights of my tour.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. May 26.
Where: Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N Walker.
Tickets and information: www.okcbroadway.com or 594-8300.