Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 31, 2016
Cats Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Based on "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" by T.S. Eliot. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Orchestrations by Andrew Lloyd Webber & David Cullen. Projection design by Brad Peterson. Sound design by Mick Potter. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Scenic & costume design by John Napier. Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne. Cast: Richard Todd Adams, Aaron J. Albano, Giuseppe Bausilio, Callan Bergmann, Claire Camp, Quentin Earl Darrington, Jeremy Davis, Kim Fauré, Sara Jean Ford, Lili Forehlich, Daniel Gaymon, Shonica Gooden, Francesca Granell, Christopher Gurr, Tyler Hanes, Jessica Hendy, Andy Huntington Jones, Eloise Kropp, Kolton Krouse, Jess LeProtto, Harris Milgrim, Madison Mitchell, Nathan Patrick Morgan, Megan Ort, Georgina Pazcoguin, Emily Pynenburg, Arianna Rosario, Ahmad Simmons, Christine Cornish Smith, Corey John Snide, Emily Tate, Ricky Ubeda, Sharrod Williams, and Leona Lewis.
Now that the show has just opened at the Neil Simon in a largely faithful revival, I will come clean and admit publicly: I like Cats.
Like, mind you, not love. The T.S. Eliot poems that form the basis of most of the lyrics, from his Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939), are joyous and clever, eternal youth with a splash of grown-up perspective. Lloyd Webber's musical settings for them are varied, lively, and colorful, counting styles as diverse as swing, music hall, noir, and, yes, pop, yet somehow resolving into a cohesive whole that succeeds in proving, to quote a lyric, "cats are very much like you." And the "total theatre" approach of its director, originally and now, Trevor Nunn, is transporting, from the controlled craziness of the concept to the John Napier costume and set designs that place dozens of different feline specimens in a towering British junkyard where oversized ovens, cars, boots, and more play critical roles in anchoring the scene. (The fine, new lighting is by Natasha Katz.)
I will not, however, defend the blink-and-you'll-miss-it plot that finds these furry folk gathering for their annual Jellicle Ball, at which "Old Deuteronomy just before dawn / Through a silence you feel you could cut with a knife / Announces the cat who can now be reborn / And come back to a different Jellicle life" by ascending to the mythical Heaviside Layer somewhere in the sky above the Russell Hotel. Though it holds things together better than it's given credit for, it's not the pointnothing with so few twists, surprises, or even gentle bumps ever could be. It is, at best, a means to end: just barely enough to get where you're going. And in this case, your destination is a good time. The musical gets you there with haste and precision under ideal conditions; this revival still manages, though it trips up more than it ought to.
"The Old Gumbie Cat," first an intensely focused tap, is now a prop-centric free-for-all (though, as the cat in question, Eloise Kropp, late of Dames at Sea, nonetheless shines). "Bustopher Jones," concerning the tubby "cat about town," has moved from its beginnings as an intimate charm piece toward more prop-heavy gimmickry (at least Christopher Gurr plays him well). The glam-rock cat, Rum Tum Tugger (Tyler Hanes), plods through his early big song utterly free of sexual excitement or even basic oomph. And a former choreographic highlight and a key dramatic moment (yes, really), "Magical Mister Mistoffelees," now has no shape, no build, and little tangible connection to the story it ostensibly wraps up, leaving the talented dancer playing him, Ricky Ubeda, to try to fill the void (which he cannot do).
Most other changes, though not helpful, are not damaging. (Though the sprawling environmental set Napier installed at the Winter Garden is sorely missed; the version used here is more compact and sedate, as used on the tours.) The exception is the deletion of the mock-operettic "Growltiger's Last Stand" (presumably for its depictions of the Chinese, which were, uh, Pekingese cats), which has been shakily replaced in the second act with "The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles." Besides being an oddly static "return" for Gus, the retired Theatre Cat (Gurr again, at his likable best), it now leaves a sagging spot near the end of Act I where that number used to reside. It also introduces a bizarre plot holeam I really writing this?as a "Growltiger" character referenced in another song no longer appears in the show.
To a claw, everyone else does much better. Among the additional highlights: Quentin Earl Darrington's wise and wizened Old Deuteronomy; Jeremy Davis as an amiable Skimbleshanks (who rules the railroad); Andy Huntington Jones's no-nonsense Munkustrap; Kim Fauré and Christine Cornish Smith as slinky partners in almost-crime, Demeter and Bombalurina; and Georgina Pazcoguin as the limber, discovery-minded kitten, Victoria. But each actor creates a cat worth watching, and seeing how these personalities collide and combine, whether individually or in the big group dances at the beginning and end of the second act, are where much of the fun is found.
With Cats, though, you never have to go that deep, though you can if you want to. (It's perhaps best if I don't get into the Grizabella deconstruction my companion asked for after our performance ended, for example.) It can be as much or as little as you want to make it, and give you as much as you're willing to give it. Is it ever going to be a revered classic? Doubtful, and that's probably for the best. But this production proves, despite its missteps, that it's capable of harnessing pure theatrical enjoyment for two and a half hours, and conjure an experience more memorable than many of today's overworked and overworkshopped offerings. It's not great, and it's not trying to be, but it's better than it has to beand, if you're still a doubter, far better than you may want to believe.