BWW Reviews: CATS Leap For Musical Theatre West's Energetic Revival
Having the distinction of being the second longest-running show in Broadway history, CATS—that renowned Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that purred its way to a Tony win for Best Musical in 1982—is certainly one of those shows almost everyone and their mother has seen at least once, if not multiple times. It is also most notably known for being the musical that begat the ubiquitous musical theater staple "Memory," with lyrics written by the show's original London and Broadway director Trevor Nunn (he also co-wrote the book with Webber and Gillian Lynne). But more than that, CATS is also a musical wholly representative of the era that gave birth to it, the kind of critique-proof show that is shrewdly designed as an entertainment juggernaut performance piece where expressive, rousing dances and hook-laden, multi-genre music dazzle the audience to enthusiastic cheers and repeat viewings. Just don't expect to walk away from it with any sort of stirring life lessons or something much deeper... Not that there's anything wrong with honest-to-goodness showmanship, of course.
That is exactly what audiences have come to expect from this fantasy-world musical, now enjoying a lively, entertaining, Broadway-caliber revival for Musical Theatre West in Long Beach through February 27 at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts. Based mostly on passages from T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats from 1939, CATS presents a two-act musical cavalcade of the different felines that belong to the tribe of Jellicle cats, and how each is uniquely named versus ordinary cats.
Here in the middle of an expansive junkyard where the Jellicle cats reside, the furry creatures are preparing for their celebratory Jellicle ball, an event which also marks the night when Old Deuteronomy—the cats' wise tribe leader and patriarch—will vet each cat and choose one of them to be "reborn" with a renewed life on the Heavyside Layer. If you're scratching your head wondering, what the eff is going on... you need not worry. The show isn't so much focused on what is going on but, rather... which cat do we get to meet next?
And one by one, we are introduced to the members of this unique tribe, each with their own musical anthem that highlights their personalities and their identifiable traits. Munkustrap (Robert Pieranunzi), the show's narrator and Deuteronomy's second-in-command, introduces roly-poly tabby cat Jennyanydots (Colette Peters). Next comes Rum Tum Tugger (Danny Gurwin), the tribe's outspoken and defiantly fickle cat, followed by Grizabella (Kelli Provart), a shaky, older grey cat that everyone shuns. This cat has really been through a lot, hasn't she? She hobbles away, dejected.
Next in line: elitist, fat cat Bustopher Jones (Eddie Korbich), followed by twin petty thieves Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer (Jacob Haren and Carly Wielstein, respectively). Soon Old Deuteronomy (here played by the beautifully-voiced Clent Bowers) arrives and we are treated to an ensemble-sung ode to the large cat that "has lived many lives." Before Act 1 ends, Grizabella returns disheveled, a bit peeved that she's been forced to seclude herself away from the joyous celebration. She gives a brief teaser for her triumphant full version of "Memory."
Act 2 opens with more cat introductions: there's Old Gus, The Theater Cat (Korbich again), who regales the tribe (and the audience) with the tale of his infamous acting past, including his role as pirate Growltiger, the Terror of the Thames. Next up we meet Skimbleshanks (Daniel Dawson), the Railway Cat. Soon we are introduced to the evil, "Most Wanted" cat, Macavity (Chris Holly), who throughout the show has been sort of haunting the celebration. A diabolical cat, the others describe him as a "master criminal." Unbeknownst to the tribe, he and his cronies have cat-napped Deuteronomy, then enters the junkyard disguised as their leader. Fortunately, Demeter (Jenn Aédo)—who like Bombalurina (Terra C. MacLeod) share a mysterious past with the villain—outs the evil cat and Munkustrap and Alonzo (Jamie Joseph) manage to scare him away. But, oh, no! Where's Old Deuteronomy? Luckily, the tribe has Mr. Mistoffelees (the very agile Joseph Corella), whose unique magical powers bring back their cult—er, I mean tribe—leader.
As a sign of fairness, Old Deuteronomy urges the cats to listen to the plea of Grizabella, at which point, the once "Glamour" cat belts her way through the show's divalicious 11 o'clock anthem "Memory." With those vocals, how can they possibly keep shunning the old girl?
CATS certainly presents an eccentric, albeit rousing conceit: each song is really a vignette of its own, showcasing one (or a few) cats at a time, using Eliot's poetry accompanied by Webber's genre-hopping grandiose musicality. While some may sit impatiently in the audience wondering, "okay, when is someone finally going to sing "Memory?" rest assured that the journey to the song is quite the scenic route.
This, unlike your "normal" book musicals, is definitively a dancer's musical, where huge chunks of showtime are dedicated to elaborate, wonderfully choreographed sequences that enchant its audience. CATS, for all intents and purposes, is a dance-heavy, dance-centric show that seems to have sprung from an era where plot and story are secondary to presenting dazzling entertainment. In the end, the happy audience gets an all-singing, all-dancing spectacular that feeds the senses much more enthusiastically than it feeds the soul. It's a fantasy from start to finish and does so with an incredibly lyrical succession of flourishes.
Under director and principal choreographer Dana Solimando, MTW's spirited production of CATS stays faithful and true to the visions set by its London/Broadway originators, and provides a thoroughly pleasing musical presentation. Without a doubt, the display of undeniable talent on the Carpenter Center stage is perhaps this production's best asset. Each enjoyable, engaging performer is a triple-threat of equal prowess: they all sing gorgeously (both in solos and together as a company), they dance harmoniously, and their acting presents a total immersion into their fantastical, otherworldly environment. Talk about commitment to their feline characters! With the help of some amazing costumes and make-up, every actor literally disappears into their cat drag without a drop of irony or a hint of shyness.
Besides Bower's enthralling, soul-stirring baritone presence, some cast standouts include Gurwin as the spotlight-hogging Rum Tum Tugger; Korbich, who quickly endears himself to the audience as Gus; twin kitties Haren and Wielstein, narrator Pieranunzi, caffeinated Dawson, and tabby Peters who all provide great levity; and the awe-inspiring Corella for his brilliant, gravity-defying dance work. And in the role that made stars out of Elaine Paige and Betty Buckley, Provart really nails her take on "Memory" to the largest, longest cheers of the night. An excellent rendition indeed.
So, again, why is CATS such a popular musical that's widely-seen and widely-adored? Simple. It is because it's a showman's musical—a musical that delights in the fantastical leaps and incredible bounds of its flexible cast. Its popularity seems to stem not from an obsessive, passionate fan base modern musicals have certainly given rise to, but from the show's intrinsic inability to offend or ask too much from its audience. It's a musical aimed to please people to sit through and be genuinely entertained, until the next set of patrons file in.
Its short comings—while plentiful especially under the microscope of today's more savvy audiences—barely even register, mostly because the audience is so busy being wowed by this hardworking, dance-heavy extravaganza. Actually, it's the perfect show for a Vegas showroom: beautifully-choreographed numbers coupled with a memorable, hummable score that can entertain the masses and endures even in the most cynical of times—something fans of Webber's musical oeuvre can rely on time and time again. Which begs the question... how many lives do cats—and CATS, the musical—really have?
Photos of Musical Theatre West's CATS by Ken Jacques.
Main Top: Clent Bowers & Kelli Provart. Middle: Danny Gurwin & Terra C. MacLeod.
Bottom: Jacob Haren & Carly Wielstein.
Performances of Musical Theatre West's presentation of CATS continue through February 27, 2011 and are scheduled Thursdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $30, with last-row seating available at an additional discount. There is a $3 service charge per ticket. Prices are subject to change without notice. Group rates are available for 15 or more.
Musical Theatre West performs at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA.
For tickets or for more information, please visit www.musical.org.