BWW Reviews: CATS at Georgetown Palace Isn't Just for Feline Lovers
I remember seeing the world phenomenon that is Cats back in the late 90s, and my response then could be summed up in four words: "I didn't get it." Sure, the set was cool, the costumes were fun, and the choreography was outstanding, but Andrew Lloyd Webber's score was among his worst and the 2 and a half hour show failed to have a point. How the hell did this show get nine lives and an 18 year run on Broadway?
Needless to say, I wasn't exactly eager to ever see another production of it, so when Georgetown Palace announced it as part of their 2014 season, I wasn't too enthused. I'm happy to report that though the material may still have some flaws, Georgetown Palace's production of it is an exuberant spectacle that can thrill even the biggest Cats detractors among us.
Cats is easily one of the most polished, professional, and entertaining productions that the Palace has staged in recent memory. The success of the production arguably stems from Clifford Butler, the show's Director/Musical Director/Set Designer. As set designer, Butler provides the show with one of the most stunning and incredibly detailed set designs the Palace has ever had, and yes, it even includes those major surprises in the finale. His set pairs perfectly with the other visual elements of Sam Kokajko's vibrant, rock concert-like lighting, the wonderful costumes provided by Southern California-based Fullerton Civic Light Opera, and the incredible makeup design by Kaye Brown. As musical director, Butler's managed to create a rich, full sound from his six person band and cast of twenty-eight. And as director, he's managed to give the show some semblance of a plot or point by focusing the attention squarely on Grizabella, one of the only cats to be seemingly rejected by the feline tribe.
But moreover, Butler has assembled some of the best musical theater performers in the Austin area. They belt Webber's harmony-filled tunes and kick and cartwheel their way through Vincent Sandoval's outstanding and challenging choreography, most of which mimics the original steps by Gillian Lynne. Every performer gives an all-out, take no prisoners performance.
Given the quality of their work and the ensemble nature of the piece, it's tough to single any of them out, though Webber's material gives a few of them a bit more material to work with. As the show's master of ceremonies, Leslie Hethcox is perfectly cast as Munkustrap. His character's enthusiasm and earnestness is immediately apparent, and his work here shows exactly why he's one of the most sought after musical theater performers in town. As the energetic, tap dancing Jennyanydots, Samantha Watson nearly brings the house down in one of the show's many production numbers. Sean Carter and Danielle Ruth nearly stop the show cold as adorable cat-burglars Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, and the finale of their dance number is truly incredible. Also impressive are Jennifer Butler and Christine Jean-Jacques as Demeter and Bombalurina, respectively. They play the pair with a sultry, cool, jazzy personality that is well utilized in every one of their songs. As Mr. Mistoffelees, Brice Rafferty, who I will start referring to as the Palace's resident young dancer extraordinaire, gives a high-spirited and enthusiastic performance, as does Ismael Soto as Skimbleshanks. The two are both true showmen in the making.
If Cats were to have any leads, they'd arguably be Grizabella and Old Deuteronomy, and both in this production are outstanding. Recent B. Iden Payne Award winner Michelle Haché gives Grizabella a desperate longing to be accepted but does so without overdoing it, something that is no easy feat given the exaggerated nature of the character, and true to form, Haché's vocal power and acting chops are undeniable. Curt Olson is just as strong as Old Deuteronomy. He plays the role with easy dignity, and his baritone voice will give you chills.
When it comes to the material, I may still not get Cats. Will it ever be my favorite musical? No. But while the material may be pointless, the Palace's production clearly wants to entertain, and it does so with ease.
This time around, I can sum up my thoughts with three words instead of four: "I loved it."
CATS closes at the Georgetown Palace at 810 S. Austin Ave on Sunday, March 23rd. Performances are Saturday March 22nd at 7:30pm and Sunday March 23rd at 2pm. Tickets are $10-$26.
Up next at the Palace is MOON OVER BUFFALO, which plays April 11th - May 4th. For tickets and information, please visit www.georgetownpalace.com