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Review: Why I'm Not Crazy About CATS at Dr. Phillips Center

Call it an allergy to plot-less theatrics...

Cats (Non Eq)I have a deep abiding fear of CATS being someone's first Broadway show.

I'm not alone in this. When producers announced that Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1981 musical would return to Broadway in 2016, Mashable called it terrorism. The New York Post said it had the power to end friendships. At least two sitcoms dedicated whole episodes to excoriating it. And when Hollywood turned it into a movie, even Webber himself said it was so bad he had to buy a dog.

And yet CATS remains one of the most successful musicals of all time, widely considered Broadway's first "megamusical," presaging the likes of Phantom, Wicked, and Hamilton. While countless people point to CATS as the reason they hate anything with either song or dance, its following is ferocious. That was clear from all the giddy guests Tuesday night at Doctor Phillips Center, where the 2016 revival has hissed its way into Orlando for six nights too many.

The concept of CATS is that a bunch of feral strays flock to a trash heap and take turns describing their most basic pastimes in semi-hummable rhyme, then ask the eldest cat to anoint one of them as eligible for reincarnation. That is the actual plot - and I couldn't use that word more loosely if I wrote it in lubricant - of a show that makes no sense but just won't die.

Now I would never wish harm on cats, of course. It's just that they ought not wish it on me either. But as I sat there bored nearly to felicide Tuesday night and praying for a cat-pocalypse on stage, I couldn't help but wonder why there's not a PETA for theatregoers - and if there were whether they'd douse the producers of CATS with cola or whatever liquid might represent the precious gasoline we wasted to reach the theatre.

I guess "waste" is a strong word, but so is "Jellicle" and that doesn't stop Webber's wildlife from singing it an astounding 71 times before even one of them attempts to meow out a definition. (Spoiler: it just means "cat.")

Everything that follows is pure feline frivolity - so staunch a refusal to tell a story that I'm almost impressed by the audacity to call itself a musical - though there's no arguing that CATS has lots of very long songs.

One of those songs is an anomaly, a triumph amongst the tripe. "Memory" is a whopper of a ballad but also a jarring contrast from all the nonsense around it, like if your pet cat suddenly gave a mid-shit litter box soliloquy.

Thank God the national tour has Tayler Harris to sing it. She plays it as a quiet, pensive, rueful piece in Act One, which makes her glorious, note-nailing Act Two reprise a powerful surprise. If there's a reason to see CATS on tour at all, it's her turn as Grizabella. That cat can roar.

Even a CATS curmudgeon like me can feel thankful this show affords its cast a showcase for their stunning ballet. The choreography is unnervingly catlike and simultaneously poetic, set against handsome set design with tasteful lighting. Anyone who comes to CATS for its visual prowess will find it much easier to love than those hoping for narrative substance or some grand insightful theme.

As might befit a show like CATS, this tour is a non-Equity production, but the caliber of its cast, crew, and production values exceed what one might expect for an aging, divisive musical with a built-in fanbase and no union contract for its performers. John Anker Bow especially stands out for his diverse but equally stage-worthy turns as fat cat Bustopher Jones and Asparagus the thespian.

It may be the mange of mega-musicals, but CATS is a cultural force to be reckoned with. Whether you want to see it for your own edification or you're one of the millions charmed by its slinky wiles, the national tour at Dr. Phillips Center is a perfectly good way to see why Webber's strange cab-purr-et has enjoyed some 41 years as the cat's meow.

Tickets are available at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, where most shows no longer require face masks (including this one, though be sure to check the rules for future Broadway performances before arrival). CATS runs through April 3, 2022.

What do you think of CATS on tour? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.

Photographs courtesy of Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, used with permission.

Top: Lauren Louis as Demeter, Chelsea Nicole Mitchell as Bombalurina, and the company of the 2021-2022 national tour of CATS.

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Aaron Wallace is a podcaster, attorney, and the bestselling author of several books on travel and entertainment, including Hocus... (read more about this author)

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