BWW Review: CATS at SHEA'S BUFFALO Theatre
Memory. With the first downbeat I was instantly transported to 1982 and the mezzanine of the New York's famed Winter Garden Theatre where the new Broadway production of CATS would settle in a for a record breaking 18 years. The iconic CATS theme wafted from it's synthesizers accompanied by lasers and I knew I was in for something wildly different. Almost 37 years later that same music evokes excitement and nostalgia, with a hint of "on no, not this again." A glimmering new National tour began a few weeks ago after it's most recent revival on Broadway and Buffalo audiences were treated to a visual feast last night as the show settled in for it's one week run.
The beginning of the British mega-musical invasion started with Andrew Lloyd Weber's CATS and by the end of the 20th Century flourished with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, LES MISERABLES, MISS SAIGON and STARLIGHT EXPRESS. This sung through form of musical story telling soon grew tiresome as changes in musical and theatrical tastes morphed. So the question is whether present day audiences are ready for some nostalgia and does CATS still hold the test of time.
Based on the stories of T. S. Eliot, CATS is merely a series of vignettes about cats-- told as they adopt various musical styles and personalities. There is a former glamour cat Grizabella, a song and dance team Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, the sage Old Deuteronomy, the tap dancing cat Jennyanydots, the aging thespian Gus.. well you get the gist. And while each style has it's own inherent charm, the lack of connection between almost all of the cats can leave for a monotonous evening. The fascination with seeing the humans dressed and acting like cats no longer seems shocking, but merely expected. Thankfully the physical production continue to dazzle.
The dancing is truly the star of this production. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler has based his dances on the original choreography of Gillian Lynne. Mr. Blankenbuehler is very hot these days, and Buffalo audiences may remember his stand out choreography from the Shaw Festival's production of ME AND MY GIRL, or more recently his stunning work on HAMILTON. His creativity abounds in the many styles required of the large cast, all who are up to the challenges of his constant movement, with nods to the feline posture and deportment. His "Magical Mister Mistoffelees" number was danced with balletic precision by Tion Gaston, dressed in an electrified costume that changed colors repeatedly.
The show starts brilliantly with the "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats" and anticipation and expectations are always high. But the first act lags considerably as the novelty wears thin in the sameness of the music and lack of much significant plot to tie the story together. Prolonged dance sequences, while near perfectly executed, do little to hold considerable interest.
While the large ensemble produced a mighty song in the large choral numbers, the individual singers all were not always up to the challenges of the score. Keri Rene Fuller as Grizabella gets the showstopper "Memory" and she did a fine job conveying the elderly outcast cat, including a lovely ascent to the "heavyside layer." Ms. Fuller possesses a large ample voice that makes up in power for what is doesn't have in inherent beauty. Unfortunately the intro to "Memory," sung by Ahren Victory as Sillabub was painfully under pitch. McGee Maddox played the rock gyrating Rum Tum Tugger and had all of the requisite moves of a Mick Jagger type, but not necessarily the powerful screech to accompany his moves.
Brandon Michael Nase commanded the stage as Old Deuteronomy and his voice blossomed by the second act. His rendition of "The Ad-dressing of Cats" was spot on, full of tongue and cheek humor, reminding us that cats are NOT dogs! Kaitlyn Davidson as Jellylorum was charming as she told the story of "Gus the Theatre Cat." And when Timothy Gulan as Gus slowly rose to re-enact his career, a sense of genuine admiration arose out of respect for the elder cats.
The fantastic costumes and unit set by John Napier, essentially life sized trash full of elevated playing spaces, nooks and crannies, slides and creative props, allowed Director Trevor Nunn to have a field day with his staging. Cats eyes peered out from the darkness during the prologue, and cats flooded the seats to let the world know they were in charge tonight. Natasha Katz's lighting was breath taking and intricately woven into the story telling.
There will always be CATS fans, just as surely as there will be "cat people" or "dog people." One can't argue with the phenomenon that CATS created, so I will let the masses decide whether the four legged singing and dancing feline continues to be their entertainment of choice.
CATS plays at Shea' Buffalo Theatre through February 10, 2019. Contact sheas.org for more information.