Those cats can really rock … and roll and jump



It’s not the music that makes a band legendary. It’s the misbehavior.

The Rolling Stones passed around drugs and women. The Who once abandoned a car at the bottom of a hotel swimming pool.

And then there are the Rock Cats, headliners of “The Amazing Acro-Cats” show opening here on Friday. The Chicago-based band’s drummer has been known to bolt from the stage without warning. Usually followed closely by the new guitarist, who’s got her own stress, trying to replace a dead icon.

Even the opening act has, uh, issues.

“Oz has a foot fetish,” Acro-Cats impresario Samantha Martin said of one performer. “He scans the audience hoping for an open toe sandal, and then he’s off!”

Ladies — and aging hippies — you’ve been warned.

Everyone else should consider themselves warned, too: This show at the Paul Robeson Theatre contains some important public awareness messages concerning pet training and adoption efforts. But the overall tone and onstage antics promise to be so different, so entertaining, it oughta be a feline-y … er, a crime.

“You never know what’s going to happen, exactly,” Martin laughed. “The cats are in total charge.”

That’s right, the Acro-Cats are actually real live house cats — those same sneaky characters that slink around on top of good furniture and treat certain human beings with as much disdain as a stinky litter box.

But maybe that’s just my experience. To veteran animal trainer Martin, cats are endlessly clever and enthusiastic creatures who can be taught to ride skateboards, walk on tightropes and even play musical instruments.

(Not always incredibly tunefully, judging by some of the Rock Cats’ videos posted on Martin’s website. Then again, you try playing a blistering drum solo with two paws. And no thumbs.)

Created about eight years ago in Chicago, “The Amazing Acro-Cats” show began touring more recently (fans helped raise $30,000 on Kickstarter to buy a bus last year). This is the first East Coast swing for a cast that includes 12 cats, a handful of rescue kittens and one tambourine-tapping chicken named — what else? — “Gregory Peck.”

The approximately hourlong show begins with Tuna, the acknowledged star of the Acro-Cats troupe, ringing a bell and turning on the stage lights.

Can you say “diva”?

“Tuna is my best, but she really has a horrible personality,” Martin cheerfully observed about the veteran performer who’s appeared in numerous print ads and has her own Twitter account (@tunathecat). “We’re ‘snuggling’ if she’s sitting 2 feet away from me with her back turned.”

After some opening remarks, there’s a fast-paced routine in which a half-dozen cats like Oz perform tricks that range from the impressively athletic (skateboarding and barrel rolling) to the everyday indispensable (pushing a shopping cart). Then it’s on to the Rock Cats’ set, followed by an audience meet-and-greet with the four-legged performers.

Beyond the Tinseltown glitz, the show has its serious side: trying to find suitable adoptive homes for those rescue kittens in the cities the Acro-Cats visit (Martin has fostered and placed 105 in the past four years) and stressing the importance of training all cats — not just budding rock stars.

“Most people are aware there’s a protocol when it comes to raising a puppy, but they’re not aware they should do the same thing with a new cat or kitten,” said Martin, who contends most behavioral problems stem from cats being bored. “People leave out a bowl of food and think that should be it. If your husband always came home and just found a dish you’d left for him in the microwave, there wouldn’t be much vitality in that relationship.”

But would the alternative be to make your husband take up barrel rolling? Martin, who has a degree in animal husbandry, said she rarely hears from critics of the show’s focus save for the occasional complaining email. Anyone curious can just look in the back windows of the tour bus and “they can see the cats happily sitting on perches, obviously not stuck in cages.” Plus, any cat who wanders off during a show (one loves to visit the sound booth) gets to come back on its own timetable.

“The cats are not robots,” Martin said.

Clearly, the Rock Cats aren’t. Last summer, Pinky, the band’s original beloved guitarist, succumbed to breast cancer. Her replacement, Annie, is so enthusiastic about performing, she sometimes wanders too close for comfort to the drummer, Dakota, thus setting off the chain reaction exodus.

“And then it’s just poor Nue up there on keyboard and Tuna on cowbell,” Martin sighed.

Hey, at least they haven’t left a car in a hotel swimming pool.

Yet.



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