It could be the early 1980s all over again, the time when, as a young, country-living boy, I was taken by my parents to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats in London.
The revolving stage—an innovation I remember being dazzled and gobsmacked over—was amazing enough; still more that a trip to London meant a trip to McDonald’s (there were no McDonald’s where I lived), and a quarter pounder with cheese and a thick strawberry shake. And so it is smalltown boys fall in love with big cities.
Encroaching age can make us cynical, and certainly I was not looking forward to a second visit all these years later to Cats, which has returned to Broadway. My friend, who had also seen it growing up in Toronto, surveyed the stage of oversized trash and the waxy moon rising over the stage, and—as soon as the stage was assailed by “cats” in skintight leotards with matted hair—whispered, “They haven’t changed it at all.”
Indeed, the production—derived from T.S. Eliot’s poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939)—feels and looks as the early 1980s one did. It isn’t just the costumes—Jane Fonda meets fancy dress—but the music, which is heavy on the synth and shameless rock ballad. But the company performs with such passion that the fact there is very little story to Cats means very little. Give yourself over to its ’80s-ness, and you’ll go home singing. There’s a reason that the original Cats was one of the longest-running musicals of all time.
Here, just as in 1981 (London) and 1982 (Broadway), the “Jellicle” cats gather under the night sky to tell stories of their kind; to celebrate cats in all their shapes, ages, and strange personalities; to be scared by the mysterious and mostly unseen Macavity; and to be embraced by the aged and very wise Old Deuteronomy, who is the key for poor old, raddled cat Grizabella heading to the “Heaviside Layer,” reborn to a Jellicle life.
Through two acts, the songs—about individual cats—are heavily linked by the prevailing phrasing of the show’s best-known tunes, “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” “Old Deuteronomy,” and of course “Memory.”
The latter is first sung, haltingly, by Grizabella (Leona Lewis, who has been asked to play this in a very odd-looking permanently stooped gait) at the end of act one, and then later more resoundingly before she is trapeze-wired off to the Heaviside Layer.
“Memory” is one of Lloyd Webber’s best-known ballads, and sung equally memorably on both sides of the Atlantic in the show’s original productions by Elaine Paige and Betty Buckley. Lewis’s is just as clearly phrased, but softer, and with less drama.
The audience applauded this, and every number, heartily. The “cats” themselves slink and leap among us, and burrow through tunnels to the stage, and sit atop the detritus of a cityscape.
We meet Rum Tum Tugger (Tyler Hanes), a rock and roll danger in black skin-tight bodysuit, and Bustopher Jones, the smart cat about town, known in the best clubs and with a richly shiny coat of fur. He is played by Christopher Gurr, who also plays Gus The Theatre Cat (full name: Asparagus), whose song is one of the wittiest—about playing a variety of cats on the stage, bemoaning the lack of training on the part of kittens today.
Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer (Jess LeProtto and Shonica Gooden) are lovable, lithe ne’er-do-wells, while Quentin Earl Darrington has an appositely rich, sonorous voice as Old Deuteronomy.
There is a brave aimlessness to Cats: There is no strong plot; it just simply and absurdly ambles through the world of cats, with a heavy dose of Lloyd Webber lush phrasing and arranging. And while there are numbers where you think, “What is the point of all this?”—“The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles”—any bafflement is merrily erased by the irresistible “Magical Mister Mistoffelees,” a feline with a jacket of illuminated lightbulbs played by Ricky Ubeda.
It is also amazing that the musical ends with a whimsical song about how to address cats, rather than a traditional barnstormer. So, perhaps Cats’ innocence is winning after all—it certainly seems to be if the crush of people at the stage door, waiting for autographs from their favorite felines, is as seen to be believed. It almost made this author nostalgic for a thick strawberry shake.