Like many children of the 1980s, the mega-musical Cats served as my introduction to live theater. I saw the original Broadway production—then billed as running “now and forever” at the Winter Garden Theatre (in reality, it lasted 18 years)—at the age of four, and promptly fell asleep.
More than a quarter-century later, I returned once more to the Jellicle Ball—this time at the Forrest Theatre, where the national tour of the Broadway revival is playing a two-week engagement. I managed to stay awake this time, but I can’t guarantee I understand the work, or its allure, any better than when I was a preschooler.
Moonlit mass of mousers
Composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, director Sir Trevor Nunn, and choreographer Dame Gillian Lynne created this theatrical juggernaut from a slim, plotless volume of ephemera by T.S. Eliot. The resulting musical remains slim and plotless—and if it had anything to do with this trio becoming Commanders of the British Empire, I’m glad we Brexited in 1776.
In brief, a mass of mousers gather in a moonlit junkyard to await Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase), their feline-god, who will allow one lucky tabby to be reborn. The process involves ascending to a bardo-like liminal space called the Heavyside Layer, which is apparently accessible only by tire. The cats sing and dance their case for reincarnation to each other, and to us, while spouting nonsense verse about how jellicles can and jellicles do.
Eventually—spoiler alert!—Deuteronomy chooses Grizabella, the faded “glamour cat,” for restoration, and she sings the song. You know the one I’m talking about. The one immortalized by Betty Buckley, recorded by everyone from Barbra Streisand to Barry Manilow, and persistently hummed for weeks after by anyone who comes into contact with this show. Of course, I mean “Memory,” that grandmother of British power ballads and eternal karaoke standby.
Decked out in a fluffy leotard that looks more flattering than frazzled, Keri René Fuller doesn’t deliver the full showstopper until the musical’s final ten minutes. The preceding two hours involve learning about Macavity, Mungojerrie, and various other felines whose names sound like unwanted medical conditions. If you’re anything like me, it also involves wondering whether someone spiked your pre-show soda. Rest assured—you’re sober, and this is all really happening.
Then and now
When this production arrived from London in 2016, Lloyd Webber and company billed it as an all-new theatrical experience. This was to the chagrin of some—including Lynne, who said the decision to replace her choreography with new routines by Hamilton Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler made her homicidal.
Yet an overwhelmingly familiar feeling permeates the production. Nunn returned to direct—if one can use such a term to describe the acting-free excess that ends up on stage—and original set and costume designer John Napier once again supplies a rubble-strewn, gunmetal-gray wasteland. Although Natasha Katz took over lighting duties from David Hersey, the result is still both garish and lugubrious: imagine being locked in a car trunk but occasionally blasted by a strobe light and you’ll get the general idea.
The tour’s performers are largely professional without being distinctive. Fuller belts her highly anticipated solo to the rafters, but she fails to imbue the text with much emotional feeling—or even consistently intelligible diction. (Silly though the lyrics may be, it helps to remember that Grizabella is literally singing for her life.) Only Zachary S. Berger, an understudy who performed the role of Rum Tum Tugger on opening night in Philly, comes close to delivering a memorably individuated interpretation.
Maybe I was onto something with my somnolence as a small child. That said, I’m glad I remained sentient. If you lay down with Cats, you risk getting fleas.
What, When, Where
Cats. By Andrew Lloyd Webber. Based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Broadway Philadelphia. Through June 30, 2019, at the Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.
The Forrest Theatre offers wheelchair and companion seating on the orchestra level, which can be purchased online. Patrons with inquiries about accessible seating can call Patron Services at (215) 893-1999 or email [email protected].