Eight times a week, Jakob Karr and Ricky Ubeda transform into felines and perform in one of the most successful shows in the history of Broadway: Cats. Karr plays the role of Carbuckety and Ubeda plays Mistoffelees. Aside from the Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-musical, the two performers have something else in common: They both competed on the hit reality show So You Think You Can Dance. NY1 entertainment reporter Frank DiLella recently caught up with the triple threats to talk about trading reality TV for the bright lights of Broadway.
What’s your first memory of Cats?
JAKOB: My first memory of Cats was in the late ’90s, seeing it being advertised in the newspaper. I’m from Orlando, and the tour was coming to town. I didn’t actually see it, but I remember all the people coming to town and I saw these “cats” on the cover of the newspaper and I remember thinking, What the hell is this? [Laughs.] But the first time I ever saw the show was this production, when I saw it in previews.
RICKY: I owned the VHS as a kid and my sister and I would watch it all the time. I remember being so intrigued by the movement. I didn’t understand what was going on — because I was 5 — but I was just really entertained by the cats singing and dancing.
Why are dancers so attracted to this musical?
JAKOB: I think it’s a dancer’s dream. It was created on a group of spectacular dancers. I think as shows go on and tour, they change and lose integrity. But this show hasn’t changed at all. It’s still designed to be a dancer’s power moment.
RICKY: We dance from top to bottom, with the exception of a few numbers. It’s special to see a show that’s so dance-heavy. And when the show came out, it was groundbreaking. It was groundbreaking to see someone take movement and make it animalistic and make it story-based.
What’s the most challenging thing with performing Cats eight times a week?
JAKOB: I think it’s specific to each role because each role is specifically designed. And my role happens to be a rambunctious young showoff cat, so I’m constantly jumping and climbing all over the place. It’s just generally athletic for the most part.
RICKY: I think the sustainability of it all — to be able to sustain yourself doing such a heavy dance show eight times a week — and being able to be present on that stage.
All of the cats in the show represent different types of folks and personalities. What cat do you identify with the most?
JAKOB: I barely identify with my cat, Carbuckety, because he’s meant to be this teenage angst-y fiery cat and I’m so laid-back as a person and I would much rather sit on the couch and watch TV than go out. So for me, it’s kind of a challenge to play my own cat. But as far as the cat I identify with the most? Probably Cassandra. She’s kind of the overlying matriarch and she hides in the background and relies on her wit and beauty to get through the night. If I could come back in a different life I would come back as her.
RICKY: I identify with my cat, Mistoffelees. He loves to have a good time; he loves activity, he likes to give a helping hand to those around him. He’s fun-loving and I like to think that I am as well.
Jakob, you made your Broadway debut with Cats. Take me back to your first performance on stage at the Neil Simon Theatre.
JAKOB: It was crazy! For my first show, my adrenaline was pumping so much and my stress level was so high that I don’t remember it. But coming into the second or third show, I do remember them — and then of course crying during the finale. I had to get through the first week to really realize what had happened.
Ricky, you made your Broadway debut in the recent revival of On the Town. It was part of the prize for winning season 11 of So You Think You Can Dance.
RICKY: Getting to make my Broadway debut in On the Town was the most incredible thing. I was welcomed with warm hearts and open arms. I was so young — I was 19 years old. I had no idea what it was like to live alone and have a sustainable job. It was my first time away on my own, and my cast welcomed me and showed me how great theater is. And in turn, I fell so hard for musical theater.
How did So You Think You Can Dance prepare you for your work on Broadway in Cats?
JAKOB: I think what the TV show has done for me is that it has introduced me to pickup — learning things as quickly as I can. And that’s the nature of this business. If you’re a replacement in a show, if you get more than two weeks of rehearsal, you’re so lucky. And I think that’s what I have taken away from the show: You have to learn fast if you want to make it.
RICKY: I think the show prepares you for everything if you can deal with the high-stress situations it puts you in. It’s taught me a lot of — start where you are and do what you can and put your best self forward.
If you could create the ultimate musical theater/reality television show, what would it be and why?
JAKOB: I think I would be interested in seeing how a show is cast through reality TV. I think that’s something we as performers have very little information about and we allow it to do so much to our psyche and ego, and so much of it is far beyond how good someone is.
RICKY: For me it wouldn’t be a competition show: It would be a reality show that gets inside the lives of Broadway performers. Broadway is glamorous but it’s also difficult and we go through a lot of stuff that people don’t see. And I think people would benefit to know what we deal with on a daily basis. I think it would be interesting for fans of musical theater.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.