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A CurtainUp Review
Cats (still meowing with style at after 17 years)
By Elyse Sommer
Believe it or not, there really was a time when the Winter Garden wasn't the playground of T.S. Eliot's jellicle cats as musicalized by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a hefty assist from John Napier and Trevor Nunn. It was home to Al Jolson's first blackface show as well such cat-less musicals as Hellzapoppin, Top Banana, Wonderful Town, West Side Story and Follies. Clearly this grand old dame was no stranger to hit shows.
But Cats is more than a hit; at going on eighteen it's become a genuine theatrical landmark. The tickets have taken a leap from the original $40 top. The ingenious costumes have been worn by a variety of Bustophers, Grizabellas, Old Deuteronomys, Rum Tum Tuggars, Macavitys (many trading in their whiskers and tails for starring roles elsewhere -- notably, Betty Buckley, Terrence Mann (Rum Tum Tugger), Bryan Batt and Laurie Beacham). But the show keeps rejuvenating itself with each new set of cats and the continuing stream of tourists of whom it's become a must see in a class with the Statue of Liberty. In fact, the babel of languages echoing through the lobby might make you think you'd stumbled into a Berlitz school theater party for all its students.
The universal language of dance and the visual spectacle that drive Cats account for much of its amazing success. While the plot, such as it is, derives from a slim volume of verse by one of England's most distinguished poets, Gillian Lynne's choreography for the slinky, slithering, human-sized felines conveys their personalities to non-English speakers as well as children. It may at times match composer Lloyd-Webber's tendency towards repetition and fall short of the work of Jerome Robbins or Bob Fosse, but it is to be marvelled at for its energy. Its demanding, pulsing athleticism has without a doubt had a ripple effect on post-Cats musicals.
There are other elements which have made the show impervious to critical putdowns about watering down Eliot's witty verses and the reliance on a single operatic melodic aria, "Memory", to carry everything else. Based on a recent visit to the Winter Garden, I can provide a list of these assets with the added assurance that the show retains its sparkle with costumes and props none the worse for wear:
Topping the list of the show's strengths is John Napier's stage design which totally transformed the elegant theater into a suitable cat habitat. The stage was lowered, moved beyond the proscenium and closer to the audience with ramps leading into the aisles. An amazing assemblage of hundreds of oversized garbage dump artifacts that could be an installation at a Whitney Museum Biennial wrap themselves all around the stage, climb up the sides of the theater (through Row G) and hang from the balcony.
For those willing to sacrifice an unobstructed view for actually being onstage, there are two side sections tucked in between the scenery at stage left and right. This giant junkyard environment allows performers to easily break through the "fourth wall" that usually separates them from the audience serves to support the intimacy and playfulness of the show. While more and more directors have in recent years used the aisles, Napier's re-configuration of the theater was an expensive risk that has paid off handsomely.
The costumes, again by the talented Napier, are cannily "catty" and versatile enough to suit the smoothest and most tattered, the skinny and well-endowed. The same holds true for the startlingly witty cat-coiffures and makeup.
Director Trevor Nunn's directorial wizardry is all over the place -- from the gasp provoking ring of lights that soars skyward at the beginning, to the junk-built locomotive for Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat's chug-chug-chug number, to the endearing Gus the Theater Cat's flashback complete with a ship and piratical Siamese.
Nunn is also the lyricist for the show's big breakout song, "Memory" which was left out of the original "Old Possums" book because T.S. Eliot thought Grizabella was too sad a character. Not so Mr. Nunn, who saw her as the key to giving the poetical pastiche the darker dimension behind the caterwauling whimsy.
Grand staging and the non-stop dance energy notwithstanding, Cats has times when it seems more like a nightclub act than a quality musical. The first part has more than a few moments that drag despite all that's going on and the applause doesn't really pick up until close to the intermission.
Because the show is not star-driven the frequent cast changes it has undergone and will continue to undergo are actually a plus factor. Some cats may better capture the personalities of their assigned roles than others, but the overall level of the performances is very high. Stephen Bienskie whose work I last admired in a small musical, The Last Session (our review) is terrific as Rum Tum Tugger, as is Keith Edward Wilson as that "Napoleon of Crime" Macavity. Linda Balgord has the hollow cheeks and melancholy persona of the has-been glamour cat Grizabella but her role models, especially the her first-time-around rendition of "Memory" seemed to be decidedly human -- a cross between Edith Piaf (the "little sparrow" chanteuse) and old-time silent film damsels in distress (like Lillian Gish).
I won't tell you to hurry and see Cats for two simple reasons: 1. It's not going to vary too much no matter who plays what cat. 2. Unlike so many shows, musical or drama, it seems here to stay. So, if you can't see it today or tomorrow, it's safe to say it will be here for weeks, months, and probably years to come -- just like the Statue of Liberty.
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PRODUCTION NOTES & SONG LIST
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Based on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Associate director and choreographer Gilllan Lynne
Production musical director: David Caddick
THE CATS COMPANY: (in alphabetical order): Jean Arbeiter, Silvia Aruj, Linda Balgord, Stephen Bienskie, Jacob Brent, Joel Briel, Tesha Buss, Angel Caban, Celina Carvajal, Jon Paul Christensen, Marlene Danielle, Jeffry Denman, John Dewar, Christopher Gattelli, Billy Johnstone, Roger Kachel, Missy Lay Zimmer, Jimmy Lockett, Lynne Morrissey, Patrick Mullaney, Maria Jo Ralabate, Susan Somerville, David Spangenthal, Amy Splitf, Billy Sprague Jr., Jonathan Stahl, Heidi Stallings, Sally Ann Swarm, Jonathan Taylor, Larissa Thurston, Suzanne Viverito, Kurt von Schmittou, Craig Waletzko, Sharon Wheatley, Keith Edward Wilson
Orchestrations: David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber
Design: John Napier
Lighting Design: David Hersey
Sound Design: Martin Levan
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including one ten minute intermission
Opened October 7, 1982 Reviewed by Elyse Sommer October 10, 1999
WHEN CATS ARE MADDENED BY THE MIDNIGHT DANCE
JELLICLE SONGS FOR JELLICLE CATS
THE NAMING OF CATS
THE INVITATION TO THE JELLICLE BALL
THE OLD GUMBIE CAT
THE RUM TUM TUGGER
GRIZABELLA, THE GLAMOUR CAT
MUNGOJERRIE AND RUMPLETEAZER OLD DEUTERONOMY
THE AWEFULL BATTLE OF THE PEKES AND POLLICLES together with THE MARCHING SONGS OF THE POLLICLE DOGS
THE JELLICLE BALL
WHY WILL THE SUMMER DAY DELAY--WHEN WILL TIME FLOW AWAY
THE MOMENTS OF HAPPINESS
GUS: THE THEATRE CAT
GROWLTIGER'S LAST STAND
THE JOURNEY TO THE HEAVISIDE LAYER
THE AD-DRESSING OF CATS