BWW Review: CATS at Starlight Theatre
A superb touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's classical-dance-musical opera "Cats" from 1982 opened Tuesday evening at Starlight Theatre inside Swope Park for a week long run. "Cats" unlike many touring shows makes maximum use of its huge venue and the stage possibilities made available through it.
Starlight Theatre is an absolutely, massive, eight-thousand-seat, Kansas City jewel of a stage facility that often overwhelms touring shows designed to play in much more ordinary spaces. "Cats" literally explodes off the stage and the "Cats" spend significant time roaming large swaths of the huge audience.
"Cats" is unlike almost any other huge, long-running Broadway and West End popular show. It is loosely based on a slim 1940 anthology volume of children's poems by St. Louis born American ex-patriot T.S. Eliot. Tremendous production values and outstanding performances must overcome audience expectations of easily identifiable lead characters and a flow-through plot. "Cats" has an almost invisible plotline.
The show is staged in what I perceive to be a London junkyard where the "Jellicle Cats," a collection of feral felines, congregate to pay annual homage to their long-time leader Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase). Mr. Nase is one super old cool cat with a magnificent, operatic-level Italian Baritone voice on full display.
All cats enjoy lives (as everyone knows) through nine long iterations, but even felines eventually succumb and go to heaven before being reborn. Old Deuteronomy will identify the Cat or Cats who must literally ascend to the "Heaviside Layer." This year we discover that elderly Grizabella (Keri Rene Fuller) will not survive. That's OK because she also enjoys the only stand-alone song from the show; the very well performed "Memories" and a great exit.
And that is about all the plot and lead characters you get. The rest of the show is consumed by the rest of the herded ensemble of cats individually introducing themselves to the audience almost as a variety presentation. It can be tough for a first time viewer to grasp exactly what is going on, but this new touring production from the venerable Shubert organization rises above all its structural challenges.
"Cats" is the ultimate ensemble piece for tremendous actors, singers and dancers dressed in the tightest of leotard cat costumes. There are no weak sisters or brothers. No member of this balletic, tap dancing, jazz dancing, gymnastic cast has ever enjoyed an extra French fry. If they had you would be able to tell. Each member can sing his or her heart out. That the songs are so spread throughout the cast reduces the individual load on any one cast member and the audience benefits from their group excellence.
Of special note are McGee Maddox as Rum Tum Tugger, the rock star cat, Timothy Gulan in several roles (but most memorably as Gus, the theatre cat), and Tion Gaston as Mistoffelees. This cast is so good everyone deserves special note.
You can't say enough good stuff about the pieces parts of this production. The cast is great. The cast physical contact with the audience is excellent. The set is off the charts. The costumes are top notch. Lighting is super. The enhancements at Starlight including the huge LED Screen system above stage right and left enhance. New choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (whose last credit was "Hamilton" on Broadway) adds to the atmosphere.
"Cats" continues at Starlight Theatre through Sunday, July 14. Tickets are available online at www.kcstarlight.com or by telephone at (816) 363-7827. Do yourself a favor and google "Cats" the musical before you go. You will more enjoy the show and allow for your "feline appreciation" of this exceptional production to fly even higher.
Photos courtesy of Starlight Theatre and Mathew Murphy