BWW Review: CATS Are Prowling In Adelaide Again

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Sunday 20th March 2016

T. S. Eliot's book of poems, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, was published in 1939 and turned into a strongly dance based musical in 1981 by composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and the Really Useful Group, and directed by Trevor Nunn, with choreography by Gillian Lynne and set design by John Napier. The multi award-winning musical, simply titled, Cats, went on to be the longest running musical of all time. This revival was created by the original production team.

Ironically, the biggest hit from the show, Memory, is not based on one of the poems but has lyrics by Trevor Nunn, taken from another Eliot poem, Rhapsody on a Windy Night. The very short tune, The Moments of Happiness, came from a passage in Eliot's Four Quartets. The Ballad of Billy McCaw is not one of the poems in the cat collection, either, and was an unpublished work. It was replaced by In Una Tepida Notte (On a Warm [summer] Night), an Italianesque operatic aria, reminiscent of Puccini.

I saw Cats, in the original London version, when it first opened in Melbourne. It was quite an experience, walking into an auditorium completely converted into an oversized junk yard. The junk on stage, scaled up so that it suited the human cats, came off the stage, down the side walls and across the rear. The audience was immersed in the world of these Jellicle Cats. The same decoration was part of the Adelaide production that I saw some time later but, sadly, vanished from subsequent productions which, I feel, took something away from the experience. Economic imperatives have had a detrimental impact on the Arts for a very long time.

This is the latest revision of the musical, an ongoing process that started as early as the transfer from London to Broadway with the rewriting of Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer from a jazz feel in 12/8 to a 4/4 with a 7/8 section in the middle. I must admit that I still far prefer the original version, but the Broadway version has been used universally since that revision. For a while, Mr. Mistoffelees sang the song as they danced, to indicate that they were his minions, but it was later given back to them to sing, and the 7/8 section was removed.

In this production we are inflicted with a rap number, a genre that I had hoped was dying out. It is not unusual for older writers and performers trying to connect with the youth market to attempt to emulate their idols but, as they are not authentic, usually catch the tail end of a movement anyway, and probably alienate their traditional audience at the same time, this generally fails. The Rum Tum Tugger song is now not only a rap number, but the performer is also a break-dancer. Remember break-dancing? Even the costume was so out of keeping with the rest of the show. Worst of all, though, the words were incoherent.

One gets the impression that Cats is being treated by Webber as a lifelong work in progress but, unfortunately, the original coherence of the production has been whittled away, bit by bit, with what seem to be piecemeal changes, made without considering the effect on the whole. The flow and unity that the first production had is lost, and adjoining numbers now often clash. Putting aside the annoying changes, the performance, however, was another matter entirely.

It is midnight on the night of the annual Jellicle Ball, when the Jellicle cats meet and their venerable leader, Old Deuteronomy, makes the choice of which of the cats can go up to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn into another, Jellicle life. Until that time arrives the cats tell us who they are as a whole group, and offer a series of more personal introductions to, or by significant individuals or subgroups.

Pop singer, Delta Goodrem, played Grizabella in the other cites on this Australian tour but, in Adelaide, we had international musical theatre star, Delia Hannah, which many in the eastern states might suggest was unfair preferential treatment for the very discerning Adelaide audiences. In fairness, though, reports are that Goodrem did a fine job in the role, although some disagreed. Delia Hannah, on the other hand, reprising her performance from 2010, was magnificent, filling her character with loss, regret, loneliness, longing for her youth, and so emotionally charged that I hear could hear the odd sniff and snuffle around me as she brought audience members close to tears.

Not that she was the only performer on stage that drew forth huge applause. This was a star studded production. Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer are always a favourite duo and this was no exception, Brent Osborne and Dominique Hamilton, two bundles of boundless energy, using every bit of the stage and cheekily explaining what a very naughty pair of cats they are when left unwatched for even a second.

The magical Mr. Mistoffelees, the conjuring cat, falls to Christopher Favaloro, who has all the stage magicians' moves down pat, with his trick of making the kidnapped Old Deuteronomy reappear.

Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, is another favourite character and Ross Hannaford ensured that this was no exception. He has the advantage of the very clever appearance of a steam engine, built by the cats from scrap items lying around, forming part of his performance. That spectacle always impresses.

Josh Piterman took on the roles of Bustopher Jones, and the joint role of Gus (Asparagus), the aged theatre cat, and his famous stage character from his youth, Growltiger, the terror of the Thames. From a comic character, to the poignancy of the once great actor, to the dangerous villain is a role any actor would love to play, and Piterman fills the bill wonderfully. Gus, being unsteady and suffering palsy, is assisted by Jellylorum and, when he transforms into Growltiger, she transforms into Griddlebone, the pirate's lover. Samantha Morley also gives two very different characterisations in these roles.

Old Deuteronomy is given a great presence by Jason Wasley with all of the gravitas that the character deserves, giving the others a cat that they can easily love and revere.

Victoria, the white cat, always draws the attention with the high level of ballet skills required for the part, and Jade Hui-Wen Coutts is, as the saying goes, poetry in motion, no pun intended.

Macavity, the Napoleon of crime, danced by James Cooper, has his story told by Demeter and Bombalurina. Amy Berrisford and Sarah Kate Landy pass the narrative to and fro with precision in two more wonderful performances, while Cooper struts the stage, with all of the bravado of a master criminal who knows that he has left no clues.

Holly Meegan brings plenty of laughs to the role of the self-styled teacher of manners to mice and beetles, which is a crowd pleaser as they all go into a tap routine, always a sure fire winner. Everybody loves tap.

It is just one good segment after another, with sensational ensemble performances as well. The dancing is tight and the vocal harmonies are clear and well-balanced.

A big advantage to this production was the use of a live orchestra, under musical director, Paul White, worth every extra cents pent, over the use of recorded music. Performers always respond better to a live orchestra and it certainly sounds better to the audience, especially when the musicians are this good.

There were quite a few empty seats on opening night, perhaps due to the 6pm start, or the fact that it was a Sunday, or possibly that Cats has also been seen in an amateur production between this and the last professional production. Could it be too much of a good thing, too often, possibly? The applause and cheering was still enormous, however, and a standing ovation by the entire audience with applause going on and on, showed that the performance was a success. It is not a long run so don't leave booking tickets until the last minute.

Here are some tastes of the performance.

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From This Author Barry Lenny

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