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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

"The 25th Anniversary Tour"
Cats For The Faithful

Also see Bob's review of The Diary of Anne Frank

There is nothing in the current rather tatty non-Equity touring production of Cats to win over anyone who is skeptical about the merits of this mega hit Andrew Lloyd-Webber tuner. On the other hand, the energetic young cast performing this modest re-creation of the original production provides just enough spark to satisfy the eager-to-be-entertained fans and to remind others of what all the fuss was about. It is being rather grandly described by its producers as The 25th Anniversary Tour (Cats opened in London in 1982), but you should be aware that it has the feel of a split week "bus and truck" production.

Cats

For the most part employing poems from T.S. Eliotís "Old Possumís Book of Practical Cats" by T.S. Eliot, Lloyd-Webber composed a catchy, eclectic, jaunty pop score. Repeating their London assignments, director Trevor Nunn and assistant director and choreographer Gillian Lynne provided a freshly minted Broadway production in 1988 which boasted an electric high-energy performance and sweeping rhythmic cohesion. Their outstanding work provided the ballast to give a sense of wholeness and continuity to a series of random numbers. So, while never a criticís favorite, Cats was a rousing, pulsating, easily accessible entertainment with wide public appeal.

Tour Director and Choreographer Richard Stafford (with Associate Director/Choreographer Suzanne Viverito) has essentially fulfilled his assignment to stage a facsimile version of the Nunn-Lynne production. However, the production lacks the fluidity and cohesion of the original, and thus plays more like a (not very) elaborate Madonna-style concert than a coherent musical. In fact, there is a pop style rock Ďní roll coarsening of some of the movement, which makes it look more like the 1998 taped version than the richer and smoother, more sinuous cat-like moves which made Cats so persuasive when it first came to Broadway. This is not helped by the narrow playing area behind the proscenium which stands in for the gigantic round stage which was constructed several rows into the orchestra at the Winter Garden. Although Rick Belzer is credited with reproducing John Napierís original scenery, it would be more accurate to describe the very flat scenery as a major reduction rather than a reproduction, and donít get me started on the dinky rope hoist that takes Grizabella to the "Heaviside Layer." As Cats is a darkly lit show being presented in a large concert hall, I assume that the lighting housed in a long black shell across the front of the stage is a necessary addition. However, it effectively blocks the view of the performers feet (and more as they crawl about the stage) for a large part of the audience. As Cats is essentially a dance show, this is particularly egregious. As for sitting further back, well that has disadvantages of its own.

The number which comes closest to giving us a feel for the canny way in which Napier and Lynne managed to entertain us in roller coaster style in 1988 is the ensemble "Jellicle Ball" late in the first act.

The youthful, mostly inexperienced cast is ingratiating and energetic, if generally lacking in distinction. Bruce Warren provides the eveningís best performances as Gus the theatre cat, the operatic Growltiger, and Bustopher Jones. Warren cannot be over praised for his tone, clarity, phrasing and interpretation of Gusí solo , which is, at least in his hands, the wittiest and most human lyric in the show. His Italian aria-like Growltiger number is beautifully sung. Derrick Hanson (Munkustrap) serving as Master of Ceremonies, Ryan Patrick Farrell (Mr. Mistoffelees) dancing up an audience pleasing storm, and Susan Lewis (Jennyanydots) delightfully tap dancing Gumbie Cat and first bringing life to the proceedings, all deserve praise. The singing and presence of Darla Cardwell (Jellylorum) also stand out. Philip Peterson has a pleasing tone, but is vocally insecure as Old Deuteronomy, and any acting skills which he may possess are not apparent.

Claire Blakeley as Grizabella is so far out of tune and performing so risibly in her first act "Memory" that she calls to mind Forbidden Broadway rather than Betty Buckley or Laurie Beechman, to mention two of her most illustrious predecessors in the role. Apparently, she is not trained to "hold back" as required here. Her second act "Memory" was less out of tune, but more bombastic than accurate.

However, none of this seemed to matter to the many Cat-ophiles in the audience. They nosily cheered and applauded the first notes of several songs, and, in act two, cheered Blakeleyís first "Memory" high notes which were delivered in aggressive American Idol style. Hey, they were there and having a great time, so praise to them. They made it apparent to me that clearly there are a large number of people out there who will fully enjoy this production. It is only fair to say so.

Cats produced by Nicholas Howey continues performances through this weekend February 5, 2006 - (Eves: Thurs. 7:30 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m./ Mats.: Thurs. 1:30 p.m./ Sat: 2 p.m./ Sun. 3 p.m.) at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), One Center Street, Newark, NJ 07102, Box Office:888-GO-NJPAC (466-5722); online www.njpac.org/

Cats by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, produced by Nicholas Howey, directed and choreographed for the tour by Richard Stafford

Cast: Alex Ringler (Alonzo); Bruce Warren (Asparagus/ Bustopher Jones/Growltiger); Chelsea Cicci (Bombalurina); Amy Desiato (Cassandra); Emily Padgett (Demeter); Beau Speer (Genghis/Mungojerrie): Darla Cardwell (Griddlebone/Jellylorum); Claire Blakeley (Grizabella); Susan Lewis (Jennyanydots); Nathan Garland (Macavity); Ryan Patrick Farrell (Mistoffelees); Beau Speer (Mungojerrie): Derek Hanson (Munkustrap); Philip Peterson (Old Deuteronomy); Nathan Garland (Plato); Nicholas Mcgough (Pouncival); Josephine Rose Roberts (Rumpelteazer); Jeremy Hays (Rum Tum Tugger); Jessica Vaccaro (Sillibub); Drew Little (Skimbleshanks); Brandon Tyler (Tumblebrutus); Sarah Kay Marchetti (Victoria)


Photo: Joan Marcus


Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey


- Bob Rendell



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