When all is said and done, Cats doesn't offer much. This acclaimed award-winning musical which opened in London in 1981 and later became the longest running musical in the history of British theatre and on Broadway offers nothing more that a cast of characters dressed up as furry cats who recall their past lives and consider their futures. The score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the book, based on "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" by T.S. Elliot, doesn't do much to inspire a plot, and what the viewer is left with is a "litter-box" of vignettes set to music.
I saw the show in London and also in various regional tourings. This production, playing through April 19th at the Lincolnshire Marriott Theatre is a re-inspired production of the original staging which only goes so far before it becomes flat. Marriott has always had the distinction of producing quality productions. Their premiere of Miss Saigon last year was certainly an original improvement on the Broadway production. With their strong subscriber list and their in-the-round setting, the theatre has been a treat for this reviewer for many years. The program lists past achievements dating back to 1980, including such audacious productions as Grover's Corners, Annie Warbucks, Goodbye Girl, as well as traditional fare including Mame , Funny Girl and Gypsy.
Directed and choreographed by Marc Robin, this production of Cats offers a "new" look for the show. Instead of being set in a junkyard (as in the original), this one seemingly takes place in an old dillapidated amusement park. There is an attempt to evoke this atmosphere when the audience enters the theatre with murals on the wall and an amazing lighting plot designed by Diane Ferry Williams. I personally miss the giant artifacts onstage in the original production. There is little scenery. This leaves the felines full-time to crawl through the audience, prowl about bridges and various "cat-walks." The total effect did nothing for me. After a while, the concept becomes repetitive. Dancers prance around the stage, look inviting and serious, but there is little, if any, emotional interaction to keep the brisk pace of the show involving. Without any structural scenery, one production number lumbers into another and we quickly lose interest in what is happening.
Robins received permission to interpret the show as he envisioned it and this definitely comes across in some of the direction and choreography. His cast is highly energetic who tap to the music, fling themselves into highly acrobatic sequences and jump and cavort, prowl and hiss in the in-the-round setting. Costume design by Nancy Missimi is colorful and original (an improvement over the original design) and makeup design by Dawn Rivard makes us believe that each character is indeed a feline wanting to be cherished.
It's still the weak script that is the flaw in this production. With so much hyper-energy going on onstage, there is little to focus on except the spectacle of these "cats" going through their routines. No one in the ensemble really stands out, although Susie McMonagle is a strong Grizabella with a voice that nurtures the hit song "Memory." "The Jellicle Ball" strikes the right notes, but the rest of the production blends together in what could be called "homogenized" theatre. The orchestration by Shawn Stengel is lively and pulsating ... but there is not much to admire in the score.
This production is inventive and has proven to be a real crowd-pleaser (it has sold-out its entire run). Robins is to be commended for taking risks from the original staging. I am an admirer of musicals with more depth than this one. All are to applauded for their efforts, but this production was certainly not "purr-fect". CATS plays at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre through April 19th. The theatre is located at: 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, Illinois. Phone: (847)-634-0200.