Lloyd Webber's simple, repetitive and hook-laden musical style is well-suited to the task of setting T.S. Eliot's children's poems to music. To my mind and ear, his eclectic scores - Joseph, Jesus Christ Superstar and Starlight Express in addition to Cats - are more satisfying than those in which he stays within a single genre (Sunset Boulevard and Phantom of the Opera, for examples). For Cats, he put together a rich menu of catchy melodies and, contrary to his reputation for excessive repetition of his melodies, I find this score just repetitive enough to build familiarity. (Though the song "Mr. Mistoffelees" uses one motif so frequently that it was burned into my brain for several days.) And, for those who have decried the abilities of his lyricists since (or for that matter, before) his breaking up with Tim Rice, one can't fault his choice of T.S. Eliot as lyricist here in setting the poet's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" to music.
Lloyd Webber's score and Gillian Lynne's dances are capably performed by this cast, directed and choreographed for the tour by Richard Stafford. To sing the show's big hit, "Memory," they have a sensationally full-voiced Grizabella in Anastasia Lange, who's particularly a knockout when she cuts loose in the second act reprise of that song. Similarly powerful are Tug Watson as Munkustrap, Adam Steiner as Rum Tum Tugger, Drew Roloff as Macavity and Chris Mackenthun as Mistoffelees. The train cat, Skimbleshanks, leads the company in a lively performance of the song of the same name. That number, in which the cats form a "train," is one of the high points of the show and a precursor to Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express.
Like Starlight Express made people out of train cars and locomotives, Cats gives human qualities to Eliot's cats. The writer showed considerable sensitivity and compassion to them, particularly in depicting the aged among them. As Old Deuteronomy, the leader of fictitious tribe Eliot called "Jellicle" cats, Phillip Peterson is a wise and kind father figure. Ryan William Bailey effectively plays both old and young as Gus, the Theatre Cat, who relives his past glories as a stage actor in "Growltiger's Last Stand," a pastiche of old-time melodrama.
"The Jellicle Ball," the production number just before the first act finale of "Memory," is a spectacular showcase for the company's dancing. As a corps, they can only be faulted for a certain lack of clarity in the lyrics, which is a shame when the lyrics belong to such an esteemed 20th century poet. Still, the visuals carry the day in the overall staging, thanks to the inventive costumes and set by John Napier and the clever lighting design of David Hersey, who makes even something as simple as Christmas tree lights strung over the proscenium arch seem new and interesting.
Had I seen this show 26 years ago, I'm sure I wouldn't have predicted the records it would set, but maybe it's unassuming nature is the reason it has worked for so many people. Comforting, familiar, consistent – just the qualities we love in a family pet. Of course, not all pet owners are cat people, but Broadway in Chicago will provide equal time for dog lovers when 101 Dalmatians comes to town later this season.
Cats played the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago for a one-week stay form October 13-18, 2009. The national tour continues.