BWW Review: CATS at The American Theatre Guild, Your Night Will Be a Memory Too
The American Theatre Guild opened their 2019-2020 season October 14th with the national Broadway touring production of Cats.
Ok. Hold everything. I know what you're thinking. Most of us aren't Cats lovers. You're either the type of musical theatre nerd who loves or hates Cats. We have heard multiple times the complaints like 'I don't get it' or 'who wants to see people jump around in leotards dressed as cats?' Personally, I have always been fond of the show and have always grasped the level of artistic presentation delivered by composer Andrew Lloyd Weber and team which is based on T.S. Eliot's poems. Let me be completely and brutally honest with you; the new, updated version by Cameron Mackintosh, producer James L. Nederlander and the Schubert Organization is nothing short of spectacular and if you miss this show, T.S. Eliot just might roll over in his United Kingdom agrave.
Pre-show curtain is the same. You see the typical set with car and graveyard paraphernalia amidst a glowing, jellicle moon. Then the downbeat of the famous overture begins, and the four-decade old musical launches the audience well into the 21st century with glowing cat eyes and a rising lighting apparatus illuminating the stage in tempo before the opening jellicle song. After a stunning introduction of somersaulting players, then initiated the succession of various cat numbers and the naming of cats. First up, Emily Jeanne Phillips portrayed the 'gumby' cat as Jennyanydots. Her song and delivery was wonderful with Broadway quality tapping amid a chorus of dancing objects and props that updated the initial delivery from the 1981 version. Not to mention the string of lights that surrounded her and lit up right on the orchestra button. Next was "The Rum Tum Tugger" fittingly played by McGee Maddox. His number had strobe lights and over-sized junkyard props as well in addition to going out into the house and pulling an audience member up to dance in the front row, breaking the fourth wall.
Then, making her first appearance as Grizabella was Keri René Fuller with subtle movements gearing up for act two's 'Memory,' which is well worth the wait. She controlled the stage with every fiber of her body and did a little bit of choreography as well, something I am neglecting to recall if that was staged in the 1981 Broadway premiere or now only a part of the brand-new revival. Nonetheless, Justin W. Geiss and Rose Iannaccone pick up after Fuller's entrance to play Mugojerrie and Rumplteazer respectively with great fun. You wonder watching this synchronized pair if they have become special friends while on tour. They both did most of the iconic blocking for their duet including partnered cartwheels. Finally, to finish up the first act, Brandon Michael Nase enters as Old Deuteronomy to the tune of the same name with a magnificently in tune chorus under maestro Eric Kang. Nase had a soaring, lyrical, operatic voice with credits from Tulane Summer Lyric. But the best first act closer I have ever saw came from the act one finale song and dance number "Song of the Jellicles and the Jellicle Ball" that had me wanting to scream "Wow!" before the act one blackout.
Act Two was just as brilliant as the first beginning with "Gus the Theatre Cat" after one fifteen-minute intermission. Gus, short for Asparagus, was played by Timothy Gulan. At first, his number started off timid and hesitant, but of course only teased the audience into a strong, theatrical introduction to the second half showcasing Gulan's acting chops and stage projection along with theatre masks worn by the ensemble only to make the Greek theatre gods proud. But Giovanni DiGabriele followed after with assured ease as Skimbleshanks with his cute delivery and cat yard train emitting theatrical fog from the smokestack only to then be interrupted by Macavity, the mystery cat played by Brayden Newby with sharp, sexy movements to the sultry duets of Demeter (Alexa Racioppi) and Bombalurina ( Emma Hearn). PJ DiGaetano makes a grand entrance from the ceiling as Mistoffeles wearing an even grander light-up tuxedo jacket which changed colors with the orchestra beats and choreography done by Andy Blankenbuehler. DiGaentano even got the Wichita audience clapping along to his song on opening night! I will say, however, the true star of the show was Broadway ingénue Keri René Fuller who not only sang famed song 'Memory' effortlessly and beautifully but stopped the entire show for at least thirty seconds with thunderous applause particularly for her belting phrase 'touch me, it's so easy to leave me' sure to make your night a memory too just listening to such a gifted talent. My only criticism of the touring production comes from the approach to the Heaviside Layer. Everything, every moment of the show was perfect including the staging for this number except I would have liked the hydraulic lift to have lit up underneath first and then extend out into the house like the lights did at top of show bringing everything full circle. Despite this minimal critique, everything was absolutely incredible to the point that out in the lobby after the show, I overheard the toughest and machoistic of male dudes who probably never attends theatre regularly audibly exclaim, "That was AMAZING!" And, it truly, truly was an amazing show.
Broadway in Wichita's 2019-2020 season at Century II Concert Hall includes A Magical Cirque Christmas, Sara Bareilles' Waitress, The Spongebob Musical and Bandstand. For ticket information visit broadwaywichita.com or call 316.303.8100.