Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Cats is based on the poems contained in T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." The Jellicle Cats of London 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 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 is quite thin. 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 a number of spots and has little emotional pull.
Famed theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has had great success on Broadway and in London, including Cats, and his music and orchestrations are apt and tuneful. He's somewhat constricted by the structure of the poetry that he has set to music, not allowing for the sweeping melodies he normally provides. 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.
This tour, which is based on the most recent Broadway revival, has original director Trevor Nunn returning to helm the production. He has tweaked a few things, all of them 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. Jonathan Gorst leads a talented ten-piece orchestra.
The cast for this tour is a talented one, excelling in both vocals and dance. Their characterizations are also fully realized, which greatly helps in keeping the fantasy of the piece alive. Deserving of special praise are Paul Giarratano (an exciting Mr. Mistoffelees), Michelle E. Carter (a lovable Jennyanydots), Devon Mccleskey (a well-sung Munkustrap), and John Anker Bow (showing versatility as Peter, Bustopher Jones, and Gus). Also providing a winning performance is Tayler Harris, who sings with great emotion and vulnerability as Grizabella.
Cats helped to pioneer the trend toward large sets and splashy lighting effects which came to prominence in the 1980s. Though technical advances quickly generated more elaborate productions, the show was cutting edge for its time 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.
In the 2004 film Jersey Girls, George Carlin's character tells Ben Affleck's character to "take the girl to see the cats," referencing that Affleck's daughter in the film wants to see Cats. I brought my daughter to see this production. She enjoyed the dancing, some of the music, and the design, but was let down by the vague story. That's a pretty good summary of the show itself. This tour does boast a strong cast, and those who only know the piece from the film version will find more to enjoy seeing it live.
Cats runs through November 28, 2021, at the Schuster Center, 1 W 2nd St, Dayton, OH 45402. For tickets and information, call 937-821-5811 or visit www.daytonlive.org. For more information on the tour, visit ustour.catsthemusical.com.