Andrew Lloyd Webber catapulted to unprecedented West End and Broadway success with his musical extravaganza Cats, based on a 1939 collection of light verse by the otherwise modernist poet, T.S. Eliot. This past weekend at the Kennedy Center, a new North American tour production of Webber’s indefatigable anthropomorphic felines played smoothly, not a hairball in sight. Directing credit is given to Trevor Nunn, Webber’s original collaborator on the project.
Cats has only the thinnest thread of a plot, and it is not the place to look for extended character arcs. Its musical numbers are a pastiche of various styles, and of varying quality, mostly tied to vignettes about a particular kitty. Audiences have always been wowed by the show’s fancy feast of set, costuming, makeup, lighting, and above all, dance.
Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and his team expertly herd the large ensemble of cats through one high-energy, intricate production number after another. It’s impossible to take one’s eyes off the dancers, individually and collectively. Each move is specifically coordinated with music and light cues in an impressively precise way. True to the show’s tradition, cats occasionally prance up and down the aisles and interact with the audience (Rum Tum Tugger made the evening for two women in the row in front of me by plopping down briefly in a seat between them).
There are some notable featured moments. Tony d’Alelio and Rose Lannaccone have a delightful paw de deux in “Mongojerrie and Rumpelteaser.” PJ Digaetano is a leaping, spinning Mistoffelees in a literally sparkling act two solo. Alexa Racioppi and Emma Hearn give a sinuous, sexy, jazzy tribute to that Macheath-like feline felon, Macavity, while Emily Jean Phillips gets a lively tap turn in “The Old Gumbie Cat.”
The only downside is the length of some numbers, such as “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” and “Song of the Jellicles and the Jellicle Ball.” Attributable largely to a seeming excess of music in some portions of the score, this results in a probably inevitable degree of repetition in the movement.
When the original Cats production opened in 1981-82, computer control of lighting was in its infancy. It is fair to say that Natasha Katz’s dazzling, showy, colorful, constantly and instantly changing design for this tour would not have been possible without present-day technology. One could watch the proceedings as a light show and be satisfied.
John Napier’s set – a larger-than-life junkyard, subtly modified from the original production’s version – established the atmosphere effectively, presided over by a large, bright “Jellicle Moon” on the backdrop. The set provided plentiful pussycat perches, in addition to a well-used slide. Only a hot tin roof was lacking. In the “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat” number, items from the set are assembled quickly into a locomotive. In one nice quick touch, a portable flat mentions “The Waste Land,” Eliot’s poetic masterpiece.
Napier also designed the costumes, which, like those of the original cast, suggests (e.g., with leotards, furry legwarmers, and paw gloves), rather than attempts to reproduce, the look of actual cats. They showed off the well-conditioned bodies of the dancers to good advantage, none more so than a tight, smooth, golden tan bodysuit that would have delighted Goldfinger.
Among the featured performers, Rum Tum Tugger (McGee Maddox) wore a sleek black outfit; Mistoffelees was also in black, decorated with changing multicolored lights; Mungojerrie and Rumpelteaser wore matching black and orange stripes. Older characters like Asparagus (Timothy Gulan) and Grizabella (Keri René Fuller) wore shreds and patches, while Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase) resembled a somewhat shaggy yeti.
It was these older characters who provided many of the evening’s highlight musical moments. Grizabella, the bedraggled one-time glamour cat, embodied by Fuller in end-stage Nora Desmond mode, gets the show’s most memorable song, “Memory.” With her smooth lower register, an upper register belt when she needs it, and perfectly articulated final consonants, Fuller delivers the song magnificently and touchingly. Gulan likewise combines excellent physical acting and fine character singing as the elderly “Gus the Theatre Cat.” Nase, with an operatic tenor sound, has great fun with “The Moments of Happiness,” as good a Handelian recitative as you’ll find this side of the 18th century.
In the original production, Rum Tum Tugger, the junkyard’s rock star, was very Elvis. In this production, Maddox’s take on the character was perhaps a bit more David Bowie. In any case, Maddox’s cool cat would not be out of place in any rock venue. Maddox and Zachary S. Berger (Munkustrap in Friday night’s performance) join in the sweet melody of “Old Deuteronomy.” In that number, as well as in the other choral numbers like “Journey to the Heaviside Layer,” the entire company sings in a satisfyingly rich, full tone.
Incidentally, there really is a Heaviside Layer, named after British physicist Oliver Heaviside. Alas, its use in the real world lies in reflecting radio waves, rather than providing tenth lives to deserving cats.
Cats is all about spectacle, and the touring production delivers it at the highest professional level, along with singing dancers whose talent and nonstop energy will be catnip to any audience.
Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission