BWW Review: New Choreography and a Powerhouse Cast Make For a Fur-midable Production of CATS
CATS is a show that, on paper, isn't necessarily an easy sell. The narrative is simple: once a year a group of cats come together for the jellicle ball, and their leader Old Deuteronomy selects one cat to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn into a new life. There isn't too much structure to the plot besides that - cats come and go, introducing themselves and sometimes each other, and generally just...do cat things.
Because of all that, I wasn't the most optimistic viewer at the start of the night. By curtain call I was debating adopting a cat and naming it Mr. Mistoffelees, even with a lifelong track record of severe allergic reactions to the animals.
Presented by Mirvish, this touring production features gorgeous creative work, fluid new choreography (Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler, who also choreographed the upcoming CATS film) and a solid ensemble of lovable characters. Director Trevor Nunn succeeds in navigating an absurd story and large cast to create a spectacle. There are plenty of areas to deep dive into the lore of CATS, and while the ideas of community, aging, faith, and reincarnation are hinted at, it's up to the audience to decide what matters; and if someone just wants to enjoy two hours of song and dance, that's perfectly fine too.
There aren't any clear leads but it's safe to assume the central characters are those with their own songs. The Rum Tum Tugger (McGee Maddox) is the charming bad-boy of the ensemble, and Maddox plays him with the same energy and swagger of an 80s glam rocker. As the leader of the cats, Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase) carries the patriarchal figure like an aged king, and Nase's voice has a slight operatic tone that suits the regal feline. The dance-heavy role of Victoria (Caitlin Bond) is clearly demanding, yet Bond moves effortlessly and gracefully.
It's impossible to discuss CATS and not mention the show's 11 o'clock number "Memory," sung by the black sheep of the jellicle clan, Grizabella (Keri René Fuller). Fuller doesn't get nearly as much stage time as the full ensemble but makes the most of her appearances, offering an emotional depiction of an aging cat struggling to reconcile her miserable present with her glamourous past. And if Grizabella has the big number, then Mistoffelees (PJ DiGaetano) gets the show-stopper; DiGaetano plays the magician cat with a certain subtlety that draws your eye, but his titular number is a triumph of light, dance, and at risk of sounding cliché, magic.
The fusion of dance, light (Natasha Katz, whose lighting is layered and executed in a way that sells the show all on its own), costume and scenic design (both by John Napier) elevate the production and are the reason an audience can even begin to buy into the bizarreness of it all. Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Cullen's score is a complex, wordy, and sometimes dissonant work but it's handled with vigor by conductor Eric Kang and the orchestra.
Even with its simple plot and broad cast of characters, there's a certain charm to CATS that you might not expect to find in a show set in a junkyard. Even without seeing the upcoming film adaptation, it's clear that CATS belongs in a theatre - the fantastical nature of it all sounds ridiculous on paper, but works so well when its unfolding in front of and all around you.
Mirvish's CATS runs through January 5 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.mirvish.com/shows/cats
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy