BWW Review: CATS Prowls and Prances Into the Hobby Center
World Series tickets may have been the hottest tickets Tuesday night, but they definitely weren't the only tickets in town. Patron lines at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts stretched across the lobby prior to opening, proof that Andrew Lloyd Webber's cornerstone musical really is 'Now and Forever Cats'.
CATS has been through almost 40 years of evolutions, from innovative underdog to runaway hit to long-running stalwart; it has been the brunt of theatre kid jokes and supercilious eye-rolling - it's absolutely not okay to admit you like Cats in 2019. Nothing will cost you your 'cool kid' card faster than knowing all the words to 'Jellicle Ball'. The release of the trailer for the upcoming Christmas film caused a massive social media uproar, accompanied by snarky memes and gifs. It's the musical we love to hate.
The 2000's saw a long-running non-equity tour with an inflatable set and often tired performances, and Cats seemed destined to be relegated to the realm of two night stops on the bus-and-truck circuit. Young audiences wanted their musicals relevant, edgy, and real, and the allegorical world of T.S. Eliot poems set to an Andrew Lloyd Webber score held little appeal to millennials - after growing up with the stage magic of Julie Taymor, unitards and fake fur held little wonder.
A 2014 West End revival was mounted by the original creative team of Trevor Nunn and choreographer Gillian Lynne, intended for a limited run. The unexpected success of this revival led to an extension through April 2015. Broadway welcomed Cats back in July of 2015 with Tony Award winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler stepping in to modernize recently deceased Lynne's dances. The production values and care put into this well-received production went a long way to bringing dignity and magic back to CATS. The revival ran for 593 performances, and launched this current tour.
This new production makes no bones about the high caliber of this show from the outset - John Napier's set is no bouncy house but a solid, looming junk pile, filling the Hobby Center's massive stage easily with levels, nooks and crannies. Natasha Katz' lighting design is dreamlike and fantastical.
CATS is not so much a musical as a ballet with opera, or an opera with dance, and this company lived up to both of those monikers. The choral ensemble work is spectacular - lofty, layered sound, beautifully directed by Eric Kang. This production utilizes chorus members who sing offstage to add depth to the sound, always a wise move in heavy dance shows.
The orchestra pit is set at floor level to accommodate additional seating, with the orchestra playing from somewhere in the depths of theatre and piped into the house. The pre-show announcements include a mention that the orchestra was performing live. I would hazard a guess that the heavily synthesized orchestrations had brought questions at previous stops. Only drums, guitar,bass and a couple of reeds accompany multiple keyboards, which give the orchestrations an '80's techno vibe, particularly in the allegro sections of "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats". (A song which is the ultimate earworm - if you can listen to CATS without having 'JelliCLE songs for Jellicle Cats, Jellicle songs for JELLicle Cats' stuck in your head you are a better person than I.)The orchestra was very tight and precise, and very loud - occasionally overpowering the singers, despite being in a different room.
As far as the dance - these are dancers, make no mistake. Playbill bios include numerous ballet and dance training credits, and frequent mentions of dance-heavy shows such as AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and WEST SIDE STORY, and they are at the top of their game. The choreography seems not so much new as refreshed until you get to perennial crowd-pleaser "Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser". The basic athletic elements are still there, including the iconic partner cartwheels, but there is an intricacy and complexity that is contemporary and exciting. Justin W. Geiss as Mungojerrie and the sassy Rose Iannaccone as Rumpleteaser are standouts as the cheeky duo. Another addition is an extended solo in "Mr. Mistoffelees", beautifully danced by Tion Gaston. Caitlin Bond's sweetly charming Victoria and her exquisite technique are captivating.
Tuesday night's show had a 10-12 minute start delay for technical issues, but ran very smoothly once it started- almost too smoothly. This production of Cats is tight, clean, meticulous - but I am not sure that is always a good thing. The playfulness and spontaneity of the original have been rehearsed right out, and it feels almost mechanical. Act Two is a bit more fun - "Gus the Theatre Cat" is a particular stand-out. Kaitlyn Davidson's Jellylorum is tender and clever, with a crystalline voice.
Keri Rene Fuller as Grizabella has a strong voice with a rock edge, and is particularly effective in "Entry of Grizabella", which I find to be much more haunting than the ubiquitous "Memory". Fuller is very good, just too young for this role, which gave me opportunity to create my own backstory about why she was ostracized - was she a junkie cat? Did she get addicted to catnip? Her "Memory" brought the house down, of course; and the poignant staging enforced the oft- overlooked meaning behind the lines "Touch me" - she literally means 'touch me', as contact with the other Cats is forbidden to her.
Brandon Michael Nase has a warm, powerful voice, but once again is someone who sounds much too young as Old Deuteronomy (oddly garbed here to resemble Hagrid in a winter coat).
The biggest let-down in this sanitized Cats is, for me, Rum-Tum Tugger. I had such a crush on John Partridge in the 1998 film version; he oozed rock-n-roll sensuality, and the fangirling kittens represented all of us. In this production Tugger is less Steven Tyler and more Las Vegas Elvis - McGee Maddox struggled with volume in his signature number, and the choreography and staging are disappointingly tame.
Also missing is the whimsy and mischievous background antics of the ensemble - every movement is carefully staged with no opportunity for the organic frolic and interplay of the ensemble that so charmed audiences in years past. The creative team seems to tell us that this is art, it is serious art, and they have assembled very talented performers to present a dignified, meticulous production of a beloved show - but at what cost? The talent was there, the art was there, the joie de vivre not so much. These are adults clambering and prancing down the aisles in cat costumes - shouldn't we still be having fun?
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy