Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Cats is based on the poems contained in T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." The members of the tribe of Jellicle Cats arrive for their annual celebration at the junkyard. The gathering culminates in 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 is credited to Eliot (who received a posthumous 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 is 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.
Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has had great success on Broadway and in London, including Cats, and his music is apt and tuneful (as are his orchestrations). He was somewhat constricted by the structure of the poetry that he set to music, not allowing for the sweeping melodies he normally provides. The great exception is "Memory", the chill-producing song that has become so overdone through the years that its simple beauty within the show is sometimes forgotten. With lyrics 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. The tour uses a smaller, synthesized orchestration that diminishes the impact of some musical moments, including the usually potent "Prologue."
This production, which is based on the recent Broadway revival, has original director Trevor Nunn returning to helm the production. He has tweaked a few things, all for the better, and the tone and pathos of the show are well-suited to the material. This is essentially a dance piece, and Cincinnati native Andy Blankenbuehler has provided new choreography based on the original dances by Gillian Lynne, but with more variety, punch and vibrancy. Eric Kang leads the ten-piece orchestra.
The cast is an extremely talented one, all excelling vocally and in their dancing. Their characterizations are also fully realized, which helps greatly in keeping the fantasy of the piece alive. Deserving of special praise are Tion Gaston (a high-flying Mr. Mistoffelees), Brandon Michael Nase (a regal Old Deuteronomy), CCM grad Kaitlyn Davidson (a tender Jellylorum), and McGee Maddox (a sassy Rum Tum Tugger). Also providing a winning performance is Keri Rene Fuller, who sings with great emotion and vulnerability as Grizabella.
Cats was one of the first of what would be many musicals, along with Les Misérables 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, this 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 his costumes are now iconic. Natasha Katz's new lighting is exquisite, with numerous thrilling moments and praiseworthy effects.
It's hard to imagine that Cats was once considered groundbreaking theater and that its run of nearly eighteen years on Broadway was the longest in the history of the Great White Way at the time. But, despite the absence of a story of any substance and some slow spots, it still receives thunderous applause from audiences. Those with a true appreciation for the nuances of dance, already like this musical, or just love seeing wildly talented performers are in for a thrill ride with this production.
Cats, through June 16, 2019, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, call 800-294-1816 or visit ustour.catsthemusical.com/.