‘Cats’ national tour a purrfectly marvelous homage to musical’s staying power
As much as “Cats” relies on boffo production values, it relies more on the sweat and sinewy strength of its marvelous ensemble.
“Cats” has been a critical target among theater snobs pretty much since the first anthropomorphized feline slinked onto London’s West End in 1981. Never mind that “Cats” won seven Tony Awards after moving to Broadway in 1982.
The snark-inclined still love to hate on all those singing cats. Meanwhile, the show’s inspiration — obscure T. S. Eliot poems about an emotionally opaque species —doesn’t exactly scream “box-office bonanza.”
Furthermore, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (pre-knighthood and “Phantom of the Opera”) didn’t really bother with a plot for his take on Eliot’s 1939 book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”
When: Through Aug. 4
Where: James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Tickets: $30 - $95
Run time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including one 20 minute intermission
Instead, Webber relied on spectacle the way previous musicals relied on love stories. When Webber sent a massive on-stage tire ascending toward the mythical, mystical feline afterlife (the “Heaviside Layer” in “Cats” parlance) it ushered in the age of mega-musicals, i.e., shows with epic special effects including but not limited to falling chandeliers. Webber’s score offered up a seismic hit with “Memory,” and Gillian Lynne’s original choreography was stunning. With those elements as the wind beneath its wings, “Cats” has endured.
The tour that kicked off in Chicago Wednesday night at the Nederlander Theatre is a lavish, eye-popping homage to the original production. That’s not surprising, given the tour’s pedigree: The director is Trevor Nunn, who helmed the very first “Cats” and the 2016 West End revival that subsequently moved to Broadway. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (who won a Tony for choreographing “Hamilton”) has modeled the dances on Lynne’s slinky, skittery feline-inspired footwork.
But as much as “Cats” relies on boffo production values, it relies more on the sweat and sinewy strength of its marvelous ensemble. There’s a wild, uninhibited sexuality that permeates Blankenbuehler’s moves, whether they’re manifested by the swaggering Rum Tum Tugger (McGee Maddox, pelvic swivel a la Elvis, triple-pirouette a la Simone Biles) or the acrobatic, hijinks of twin burglar cats Mungojerrie (Tony d’Alelio) and Rumpleteazer (Rose Iannaccone).
The emotional highlight arrives with the Act Two rendition of “Memory,” performed with yearning and melancholy and a belt that could span oceans by Keri Rene Fuller as Grizabella. When the tattered “glamor cat” leans into the final verse, Fuller delivers a textbook example of how music can take over when emotion becomes too intense for mere spoken dialogue. No matter if you’ve heard “Memory” more times than you could ever count, Fuller makes it feel like you’re hearing it for the very first time.
There are lighthearted moments as well. The one-two punch of “Macavity: The Mystery Cat” and “Mr. Mistoffelees” sparks and pops with biting humor. As the magical Mr. Mistoffelees, Tion Gaston bring down the house with wickedly impressive footwork and an amazing technicolor bolero jacket that flashes all the colors of the rainbow. As Macavity, Tyler John Logan delights in sowing chaos then escaping like smoke through a keyhole. Other cats shine as well: Emily Jeanne Phillips’ Jennyanydots bounces with joyful nocturnal, maternal energy, teaching mice to tap dance in the wee hours of the night. And watch for Caitlin Bond’s gleaming young Victoria, a young, pure-white cat reminiscent of a wide-eyed, platinum-haired 1920s film starlet Louise Brooks.
Set/costume designer John Napier creates a junkyard wonderland that reflects a cat’s-eye perspective via huge discarded shoes, soccer balls, cockroaches and mops. His costumes are equally humorous and detailed — sleek, slinky Siamese cats moving through the yard alongside bounding, raucous tabbies and fluffy playful kittens. New orchestrations by Webber and David Cullen sound amazing, thanks to music director/conductor Eric Kang and his seven-person orchestra.
“Cats” doesn’t always land fully on its feet. It never explains, for example, why the younger cats treat old Asparagus the Theater Cat (Timothy Gulan) with respect and reverence, but hiss and swipe at Grizabella with the cattiness of mean girls. The inconsistency is glaring and makes no sense.
But there’s no denying the continued appeal of “Cats.” In the 38 years since its London premiere, the musical has displayed the longevity worthy of the nine lives bestowed on the titular creatures.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.