The revival of CATS at the Neil Simon Theatre plays out as a peculiar breed of musical theater that is a cross between old-fashioned variety show and non-stop dancathon. Ever faithful to its original production, which opened on Broadway in 1982 and ran for 18 years, this revived CATS - directed again by Trevor Nunn - is adrenalized by new choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, who got the Tony Award for HAMILTON. The non-stop movement and the uber-athleticized (sometimes endless-seeming) dance numbers have the paradoxical effect of revealing the slightness of the book. The collateral damage is that the songs, despite the powerful dance that energizes and bridges them, emerge like discrete, disconnected music hall skits.
Andrew Lloyd Weber’s adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” remains pretty much intact, taking place, as we are accustomed, in a London junkyard populated with a “Lifeboat” cast of cats, who introduce themselves by way of individualized song. They convene annually at the Jellicle Ball, over which the ancient and wise Deuteronomy presides to select one among them to ascend to the Heaviside Layer for a new life. Enter the aged and decrepit Grizabella, a glamorous looker (hooker?) back in her day, now alone and isolated from her peers, lamenting the glories of her spent youth with the famous ballad which CATS is forever identified, “Memory.”
Weber’s adaptation of T. S. Eliot was novel back in the 80s, but the novelty has worn off, certainly to those who witnessed its first incarnation. The production design by Brad Peterson overall seems more complicated but young audiences will surely find compelling the elaborate, huge set, which spreads over the boxes into the auditorium, and the highly detailed costumes, both by John Napier. Lighting design by Natasha Katz is exceptional creating more mood and texture than any other creative element to the show: the star- strewn night sky is spellbinding and the auditorium festooned with carnival lights sheer whimsy. Orchestrations by Weber and David Cullen seem, if not smaller, than the original, certainly more electronic, but that is true of nearly all musicals since 40 years (yikes!) ago.
The real strength of the revived CATS is the cast. With one exception (read on), all performers are superb. Among the highlights are primo ballerina Georgina Pazcoguin, borrowed from the New York City Ballet, who anchors each ensemble dance as Victoria, the white cat, with astonishing grace and agility. Eloise Krupp, as Jennyanydotes, contrasts Pazcoguin’s ballet discipline, with a good-old fashioned tap dance number, which she delivers in grand old music hall fashion. Drawing inspiration from both Conrad Birdie and Mick Jagger is a deliciously lascivious Tyler Hanes as Rum Tum Tiger, Eliot’s version of a “dude” cat had he created one. Christopher Gurr does double duty as Bustopher Jones “the cat about town” then as the old thespian in the touching, and sweetly melodic, “Gus the Theater Cat.” Shonic Goodwin and Jess LeProtto combine gymnastic athleticism and impish charm as Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer. The standout number is Macavity, an ominous ode to the criminal cat (who kidnaps Deuteronomy), delivered with femme fatal precision by Bombalurina and Demeter, a voluptuous paring of the long-legged Christina Cornish Smith and Kim Faure. Jeremy David as Shimbleshanks the Railway Cat, in his solo song and dance, creates a rollicking homage to the grand old days of vaudeville.
One of the few places where CATS takes a breath - almost grinds to a stop - is Grizabella’s iconic ballad “Memory” delivered with determination and volume by British pop star Leona Lewis. The song has been ridiculed as treacle on one end to the most luscious, elegiac melodies of all time on the other. If you’re someplace in the middle, your opinion might depend on the interpretation a vocalist brings to it. Unfortunately, Ms Lewis’ take has all texture of drying cement. And she can’t help herself with layering her performance with much acting, as she doesn’t demonstrate she knows how to move on stage. Perhaps it was meant for her to play Grizabella as arthritic anyway.
The dizzying dance (I was pooped just taking it all in), the crowd-pleasing performances, the fantastical production design all combine to make CATS surely an irresistible spectacle for new, 21st century audiences. For the rest of us of a “certain age” we can recall the maestro of American variety show television, Ed Sullivan, intoning back in the 50s and 60s “It’s a really big show.” By Ed’s measure, the revived CATS is entertaining enough.
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