In the first few years after CATS opened on Broadway, I went to see it three times and was thoroughly captivated at each performance. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Trevor Nunn were able to take T.S.Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and transform it into a magical stage production featuring a wide array of distinctive cat personalities.
From the Mick-Jagger inspired Rum Tum Tugger to the dazzling Mr. Mistoffelees and the faded beauty Grizabella, each of the principal cats has a chance to shine in one of the musical numbers that, taken together, comprise Lloyd Webber’s most consistently memorable tunes.
John Napier’s sets and costumes play a major part in creating the mysterious and enchanting environment in which Eliot’s jellicle cats come alive. The enormous set is a cat’s eye view of street rubbish framed by a string of Christmas lights that reaches out into the audience and across the first tier of the balcony.
In a house like The Paramount Theatre, which is elaborate in its own right, the lights add an element of pure whimsy, particularly when they twinkle on and off at key points in the show. The gifted lighting designer David Hersey enhances the feeling of a fantasy world where cats rule and people are non-existent.
Outfitted in all manner of stripes, whiskers, and mask-like makeup — everything designed by Napier — the cast cavorts around the stage in tightly-choreographed dances that draw heavily on ballet steps — albeit with a jazzy overlay.
Gillian Lynne’s original choreography has been updated for this national tour by Richard Stafford and, if the dances aren’t groundbreaking, they are consistently propulsive. Although the performers in this national tour, most notably Jordan Dunlap as Victoria (in white) and Chaz Wolcott as Misotffelees, are first-rate as dancers, they don’t convincingly capture the cat-like movements of their characters (with a few exceptions).
Mostly, they look like humans acting like cats rather than the animals themselves.
The structure of CATS is unusual in that it doesn’t have a coherent story line and, except for a few songs, doesn’t really stir the emotions. Instead the show is a nonstop flurry of singing and dancing, one sparkling number after another. It’s no surprise that Eliot’s widow, after attending a concert where Lloyd Webber introduced some of the songs, agreed to a full-blown stage show.
Where most musicals feature at least one song that doesn’t reach the heights of the others, every tune in CATS is top-notch. What a pleasure to walk out of a musical humming not just one but two or three songs.
The most famous, “Memory,” does not in fact come from the Eliot cat poems but was written by Nunn after Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” Either way it’s a haunting reminiscence of past glory days and Melissa Grohowski ‘s reprise rendition was wrenching.
The lack of a core idea or narrative creates a little bit of a cat-nap in the first act. Because this is fundamentally a musical revue, devoid of dialogue or character development, it takes a while to hit its stride. What story line there is doesn’t make much sense, something about the wizened Old Deuteronomy choosing which of the jellicle Cats will journey to the “Heavyside Layer” (Heaven) to be reborn.
Of course as soon as she appears, we know this will be Grizabella. Still, even without that foreknowledge, we don’t really care.
The main purpose of this storytelling attempt is to provide a purpose for the spectacular final stagecraft — Grizabella heaven-bound in a shining “Close Encounters” spaceship.
Other standouts in the cast are Nathan Morgan, whose Old Deuteronomy carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, and Christopher E. Sidoli as Asparagus, Growltiger, and Bustopher Jones. Sidoli brings great pathos to one of the loveliest songs in the show, “Gus: The Theatre Cat,” as he remembers his former life in the theater.
Despite its many pleasures, this national tour of CATS has a few weak spots. Whether it was overmiking, poor diction, or bad balance between orchestra and singers, the words in the ensemble numbers were hard to understand. Perhaps this was the result of opening night technical adjustments, but Eliot’s witty poems lost some of their sparkle.
This was especially problematic in the “Growltiger’s Last Stand” number, a play-within-a-play interpolation from a pirate opera. The scene is bizarre under the best of circumstances, but when the words are incomprehensible it devolves into a misguided musical pantomime.
Given the ever-increasing cost of producing musicals this CATS, like almost all other shows, uses a minimal orchestra — just six electronically enhanced instruments. The result is musical accompaniment that hints at, but doesn’t fully convey, the richness of the original score.
Even with its minor flaws, this CATS still succeeds at what the show has been doing since 1981: Cat-apulting us to a wondrous, feline world where reality and belief are suspended — if just for a few hours.
If you go: CATS, Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine Street, through April 22. Tickets start at $25 at the box office, by phone at 1-877-784-4849 or online at stgpresents.org or tickets.com