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CATS: THE JELLICLE BALL

This review was written for “Blickpunkt Musical” the German magazine on international musical theater for which Mr. Dwyer is U.S. reviewer.


A brilliant, revised version of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s much revived CATS explodes Off-Broadway in New York. The format and setting? A drag ballroom competition, mostly cast with performers from and created by members of the New York City “house” or ballroom culture. This exuberant production called “Cats The Jellicle Ball”, which is premiering at the splendid new Perelman Arts Center (PAC-NYC) in lower Manhattan (right across the street from the 911 Memorial on the footprint of the former World Trade Center), is, as before, inspired by Weber’s musical based on T. S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”.


When “Cats” came to Broadway in 1982, as part of the British musical invasion, it was - pardon an old-fashioned American expression - the “cat’s pajamas”, the cutting edge in musical theater. This ballroom version takes “Cats” beyond any theatrical interpretation the world-famous musical has ever known.


The stage at the flexible Perelman auditorium is a runway, with a curtained entrance at one end, and judges table at the other. The cast of 26, festooned in outrageous drag by costume designer Qween Jean, move through the audience in multi-tiers on three sides and congregate on the sides of the runway often interspersing with audience at cafe-style tables along the runway.


The show is the brainchild of director Bill Rauch, also Artistic Director of PAC-NYC., who shares directing credit with Zhalion Levingston The lifeblood - raison d’etre, really - for this “Cats: is the amazing choreography credited to Arturo Lyons and Omari Wiles. Both Lyons and Wiles are choreographers for the HBO series “Legendary” about house urban culture; they’ve both worked on concert tours for the likes of Madonna, Beyonce and Janet Jackson, whose performances owe much to ballroom culture.


Lyons and Wiles dance vocabulary embraces hip-hip, vogue, reggae, street jazz and African dance. While ballroom ensemble is the star of “Cats The Jellicle Ball”, it’s characters - queer people rather than cats - who emotionally drive the story; casting - which includes several trans - is impeccable. The opening number of the ensemble “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” ranks as one of the best opening numbers this reviewer has seen.


Every number delights. Among the highlights are “The Rum Tum Tiger '' with Rum Tum more macho and sexier than ever played by Sydney James Harcourt (an Aaron Burr in “Hamilton”) - check out his abs. The most apt casting is Andre DeShields (Tony Award for Featured Actor in “Hadestown”) as Old Deuteronomy. The rhapsodic choral that introduces him is transportive; the auditorium is on its feet when the curtain parts for his entrance and erupts to witness the 78-year-old, 55-year theater veteran bedecked in a massive main of white hair (think “lion king’) and purple velvet robes. “Grizabella: The Glamour Cat” closes Act 1; played by ballroom icon Tempress Chastity Moore, founder and queen mother of her own house, this Grizabella, the aging, impoverished cat who’s “days in the sun” are over, immediately bonds with the audience.


(The audience is, not surprisingly, the most diversely gendered, multi-generational and multi-ethnic audience I have ever witnessed in all my theatergoing in New York. Naturally, tThe producers have intently reached out to house and LGBTQ+ communities.)


Act 2 ramps up the ballroom competitions; some are incorporated into Weber’s musical numbers; some are extended dance sequences. Among the highlights are “Macavity the Mystery Cat” with Macavity devilishly played by a strapping Antwayn Hopper (last seen in the musical “A Strange Loop’) followed by “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” with Mistoffelees played by a lanky, towering Robert “Silk” Mason, founding mother of the Kiki Royal House of Silk. (The entire Weber score has been rearranged not only to evoke a “ballroom” sound but also to accommodate the runway choreography.)


An outstanding, non-dance, solo performance comes from “Gus: The Theatre Cat '' played by Junior LaBeija, a senior - and revered - veteran of New York houses. The piece-de-resistance of “Cats”, though, is the perennial ballad “Memory”. Typically, it can come across as treacly; here as performed by Tempress (a trans female) with a deep, rich alto range, it has a poignancy unheard before. And Grizabella’s “Journey to the Heaviside Layer '', which in weak revivals can come across as silly, is genuinely moving. This “Cats” has theatrical inevitability; the selection by Deuteronomy of Grizabella to go to another life as the real prize in the competition makes sense. It’s as if “Cats” was written for this version.


The finale is goosebumps, but what is even better is the curtain call, when every member of the cast in all her/him/their glory vogues the runaway. Rapture - pure joy - from beginning to end.



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