Though Cats is no longer playing "Now and Forever" on Broadway, a non-Equity national tour is still going strong and currently takes up house at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati. Though somewhat of a fossil now in comparison to other "modern" musical spectacles, this production continues to entertain, thanks in large part to its fine performers.
Cats is based on the poems contained in T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. The very unique and individualized members of the tribe of Jellicle Cats arrive for their annual celebration at the junkyard. The gathering culminates with the selection of one feline to be taken up into the heavyside layer, where he or she will be reborn into a new life. Each member of the group is introduced and their very human-like qualities explained.
The book for the show is credited to Eliot (who posthumously received a Tony Award for the show), but it was original director Trevor Nunn who fashioned the poems together to create the musical. Limited mostly to Eliot's writings for the basis of the play, the plot appears very thin and sometimes vague. When viewing it, the show quite often feels like a revue rather than a book-driven musical. Many of the characters are interesting on their own, but Cats as a whole drags in many spots and has little emotional pull.
Tunesmith Andrew Lloyd Webber has had great success on Broadway and in London, including Cats, but this score is not one of his best. Webber is known for his sweeping, beautiful melodies, but here he is largely constricted by the structure of the poetry that he has set to music. Many songs sound similar. The great exception is "Memory," the chill-producing number that has become so overdone through the years that its simple beauty within the show is sometimes forgotten. With lyrics for the song provided by Nunn, Webber is able to break free of any constraints and supplies one of his trademark showstoppers. Of the remaining songs, "The Old Gumbie Cat", "Old Deuteronomy", and "Mr. Mistoffelees" are the best. Unfortunately, this production uses a grossly synthesized orchestration that ruins many musical moments, including the usually potent "Prologue."
As with many non-Equity tours, this production lists a director/choreographer different from the Broadway version, yet who closely follows the work of his predecessors. Richard Stafford served as Dance Supervisor for Cats on Broadway, and has carefully recreated the work of Director Trevor Nunn and Choreographer Gillian Lynne. Nunn's staging of the material is uniformly effective, but the musical is essentially a dance piece, and Lynne's work is wonderful. The demanding and almost constant choreography showcases both individual and ensemble talents. Though a little repetitive at times, the dances are fun, vibrant, and perfectly in tune with the theme.
The cast for this tour is an energetic and talented one, with each performer proving to be a skillful dancer and thoroughly proficient singer. Their characterizations are also fully realized, which helps greatly in keeping the fantasy of the piece alive. Deserving of special praise is Ryan Jackson (Mistoffelees), Martin C. Hurt (Old Deuteronomy), and Stan Stanley (Rum Tum Tugger). Also providing a winning performance is Dee Roscioli, who sings with great emotion and vulnerability as Grizabella.
Cats was one of the first of what would be many musicals, along with Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, to transfer from London and dominate Broadway during the 1980s. Part of what made these British "spectacles" so popular were their large-scale design elements. Cats helped to pioneer the trend towards large sets and splashy lighting effects. Though technical advances quickly brought on more elaborate productions, the show was cutting edge in the early 1980s and is still impressive. The large junkyard set by John Napier is filled with lots of fascinating nooks and crannies and David Hersey's active lighting scheme has many fine moments.
It is hard to imagine that Cats was once considered groundbreaking theater and that its run of nearly eighteen years on Broadway is the longest in the history of the Great White Way. But, despite the absence of a story of any substance, many slow spots, a mostly uninteresting score, and disappointing instrumental choices, this show continues to entertain thanks to its young talented cast, high-octane choreography, and one well-known showstopper.
Cats plays at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through November 24, 2002, and tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.