Arts

Review: ‘Cats’ Purrs Contentedly, Breathing New Life into Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Musical

The cast of the North American tour of "Cats." Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

The national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats,” which is continuing where the 2016 Broadway revival left off, is now playing at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa through only April 14th. And despite its threadbare plot — based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” (a collection of children’s poems) — “Cats” is as loyal to its trusting audience as ever, even 38 years later since its debut, delivering top-of-the-line dance sequences, lighting, and special effects. For these reasons and more, it’s not difficult to ascertain why the Trevor Nunn-directed production has had such an impressive longevity.

Dan Hoy (right, foreground) and company in the North American tour of "Cats." Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Dan Hoy (right, foreground) and company in the North American tour of “Cats.” Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

If taken as a portraiture of various characters, which the production is more or less intended to be, there is more than enough yarn weaved in the telling of the idiosyncratic Jellicle cats, comprised of all fur patterns and dispositions, who congregate once a year for their annual Jellicle Ball to determine the rebirth of one lucky member by way of the Heaviside Layer (the feline version of heaven). As one prospective candidate after another is introduced for this honor, we gain insight into the way a cat might think, observe, and act, especially when being watched by an attentive horde of people.

The band of Jellicles include, among others, the black-and-white-furred Munkustrap (Dan Hoy), the show’s energetic narrator; the indolent “Old Gumbie Cat,” Jennyanydots (Emily Jeanne Phillips), the living-large-and-in-charge fat cat, Bustopher Jones, as well as the palsy-afflicted Gus, who reminiscences about his erstwhile days as a theatre star (both are portrayed by Timothy Gulan); Gus’ loving caretaker Jellylorum (Kaitlyn Davidson); the endearing and classy white cat, Victoria (Caitlin Bond); the confidently sensual Bombalurina (Lexie Plath) and Demeter (Liz Schmitz); the leather-clad and hip-swaggering rock star, Rum Tum Tugger (McGee Maddox); the magical and astonishing sparkle of Mister Mistoffelees (Tion Gaston); the charming troublemaking duo of Rumpelteazer (Rose Iannaccone) and Mungojerrie (Tony d’Alelio); the antagonistic criminal mastermind, Macavity (Tyler John Logan); and the dapper “Railway Cat,” Skimbleshanks (Ethan Saviet).

Liz Schmitz and Lexie Plath (centered, L-R) with the cast of the North American tour of "Cats." Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Liz Schmitz and Lexie Plath (centered, L-R) with the cast of the North American tour of “Cats.” Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Encompassing the musical’s main conflict is the once glamorous Grizabella (Keri René Fuller), who is completely shunned by her peers and bereft of the “happiness” she once knew. At the helm of the Jellicles is the venerable and doddering Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase) who decides which cat goes up to the Heaviside Layer.

With a cast of 32 performers, there is much talent displayed at any given time on stage. The first to leave an impression is Emily Jeanne Phillips’ Jennyanydots who sheds her listlessness for a brisk tap number and a captivating smile amid beach-ball-sized basketballs and soccer balls. McGee Maddox’s charismatic Rum Tum Tugger leaves a trail of torrid fire in the wake of each slink and slide, incorporating stage-commanding elements that remind of Elvis Presley and Freddie Mercury. Timothy Gulan is remarkable for his comic timing and versatility as Bustopher and Gus, the two of whom couldn’t be more disparate from one another. Moreover, Rose Iannaccone and Tony d’Alelio as well as Liz Schmitz and Lexie Plath rivet playfully and with great chemistry in their respective tandem numbers, “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer” and “Macavity, The Mystery Cat.”

McGee Maddox (center, background) and company in the North American tour of "Cats." Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

McGee Maddox (center, background) and company in the North American tour of “Cats.” Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Not to mention, Ethan Saviet gives a zestful performance as Skimbleshanks (watch out for the brilliant makeshift train), Dan Hoy is underrated as the narrative’s connective tissue and shines during his persona’s timpani-beating duel with Macavity’s Tyler John Logan, and Brandon Michael Nase is noteworthy for his superb operatic vocals as Old Deuteronomy. Finally, Keri René Fuller’s Grizabella and Tion Gaston’s Mistoffelees are tied for show-stealing honors, the former with her soul-baring and belting vocals in the tear-jerking “Memory,” and the latter for an all-out elite exhibition of dance while wearing a transfixing light-up jacket beaming with a spectrum of colors.

Though as seamless as the execution of its agile performers is, “Cats” perseveres as it does because of its behind-the-scenes players who have crafted an aural and visual spectacle that leaves one nothing short of breathless. For instance, Webber and David Cullen’s synthesizer-accented orchestrations are quite different than the usual musical, serving now as an homage to the 1980s. The keyboard synths, specifically, do a nice job of seamlessly reorienting the proceedings, which is also a credit to Music Supervisor Kristen Blodgette and Music Director Eric Kang, who have helped expertly actualize the music’s primary intent.

John Napier deserves double recognition for his marvelous scenic and costume design. The setting is, suitably, a moonlit junkyard replete with car parts and discarded items; and the costumes compellingly anthropomorphize an array of tomcats, tabbies, and other assorted cat breeds insofar that, by the end, audience members are likely to believe that all cats eventually go to heaven just as dogs do.

The cast of the North American tour of "Cats." Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

The cast of the North American tour of “Cats.” Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

“Cats” is, of course, a dance-heavy show, sometimes verging on being more of a ballet than a musical, which is perfectly okay. The updated choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (of “Hamilton” fame) adds a few wrinkles to Gillian Lynne’s original work, appropriately relying on stealthily quick movement that never ceases being graceful. The cast members make it look so effortless, which can make it easy to discount the difficulty level of certain dance passages as in “Song of the Jellicles and the Jellicle Ball.” All in all, with the possible exception of “Newsies,” one won’t find purer athleticism in a musical.

Last, but not least, the lighting in “Cats” is easily the best that anyone will experience in a long while. Lighting Designer Natasha Katz, who can ostensibly be found in every Playbill, has added her own modern enhancements, creating a sumptuously glowing masterpiece, illuminating the stage with foreboding flickers as well as full and mottled color tones. Festooned lights, too, affixed between the top of the proscenium and the balcony, fluoresce synchronously with the stage lighting to beautifully radiate the production.

Ultimately, “Cats” is worth seeing at least once for simply being so satisfying to look at in terms of its production values and outstanding choreography. Musically, it also succeeds in being hypnotic with what seems like a series of incantations that culminates with the timeless “Memory,” an indescribably moving song about the unforgiving ravages of time. And although the story does move slowly and may be hard to follow at certain points, especially for the uninitiated, it is advised that “Cats” be seen through the lens of Eliot’s expressionistic characters, whom one should probably familiarize themselves with before watching the show.

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

For more information about “Cats,” please visit scfta.org and catsthemusical.com

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