BWW Reviews: Broadway Rose Gives Its All to CATS

By: Jul. 02, 2013

Let's put our cards on the table. Whether you're a musical theater performer, participant, fan, listener, or even if you're someone whose only experience with musicals is being dragged to them by your loved ones...when it comes to Andrew Lloyd Webber, there is no middle ground. Either you're a besotted fan, or you run the other way when someone starts humming "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina."

I've seen most of the shows live. I even played Judas when I was a teenager. But I've never warmed up to any of the shows. There are fine individual songs here and there, but none of the pieces holds together for me. So it was with trepidation that I arrived at the Deb Fennell auditorium to see Broadway Rose's production of Cats. T.S. Eliot's poems weren't written to be set to music, and they don't sit comfortably on Lloyd Webber's music. Lord Andrew provides his usual mix of pastiches, a little rock, a little classical, some swing, and a few catchy melodies that get repeated ad nauseam. (The hit song, "Memory," is based on a fragment of an unpublished Eliot poem, which may be why it feels more like a song than the other numbers.)

Director-choreographer Lyn Cramer put her cast to work right away, sending them on one by one during the overture, crawling, slinking, and rolling onstage. The cast of twenty-four filled the auditorium's huge stage, each one in full cat costume (on the hottest night of the year) and moving in time to the music. (Cramer must have spent a lot of time having the cast observe feline movements, and it paid off.) The actors stay in character throughout, and their energy is infectious; they kept me riveted almost throughout the show.

However, because of the heavy makeup, and the fact that most of the characters' names aren't mentioned during the show, I can't praise most of the actors individually. They sang well as a group and in solos, with precise choral work when needed, and even managed to sing vibrantly while dancing their tails off (sorry). The two standouts were Amy Jo Halliday as Grizabella and Joe Theissen as Gus. Halliday gave us a heartbreaking rendition of "Memory," but also showed us the aging process, where Grizabella tries to dance like her younger, glamorous self, then is faced with the reality of her ruined body. Likewise, Theissen finds humor and heartbreak in the story of Gus, an elderly, palsied cat remembering his glory days on the stage; he shakes with pain but still finds a rueful smile now and then.

Grizabella and Gus are the two best-defined characters in the show. Most of the other "characters" are generic, differentiated only by their makeup, and we don't really get to know them well. (Not the actors' fault; they do the best they can.) The music is a bit repetitive, and the choreography is too; Cramer gives her cast the same few spins, kicks, and shuffles over and over, and the actors dance well in unison, but theater choreography is supposed to help us learn about the characters. "The Song of the Jellicles and the Jellicle Ball" goes on forever, with Lloyd Webber's music and Cramer's dance moves repeating and repeating and repeating.

The band, however, is fantastic, rocking when necessary, tender at the right moments, and supporting the actors throughout. (The music never stops.) Musical director Eric Little never misses a beat, and the orchestra puts a nice finish on the tunes. And the set, provided by FCLO Music Theatre, is amazing, a stage full of giant debris, giving the actors multiple levels and surfaces to slink across. I held my breath when Amy Jo Halliday had to climb the ladder into the flies...but to her credit, she didn't hesitate one bit.

Cramer ended the show on a joyous note. While the band played, she sent each actor out one at a time, and each got to execute a different special dance move. It's one of the best curtain calls I've ever seen, and it gave each performer a moment in the spotlight. If we'd gotten to know them that way earlier in the show, Cats might have truly been special, and I might even have changed my mind about it. As it is, it's a great ending to a good performance of a so-so musical. But then I walked into the theater with a bias. If you're on the other side of the fence and you love Andrew Lloyd Webber, you shouldn't miss it.

Pictured: Joe Theissen as Gus and Sara Catherine Wheatley as Jellylorum in CATS. Photo Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer.