When I was 13, I was sent to review a touring production of Cats. I was a “Rated G” reviewer for the local newspaper, the Union-Tribune. I had never seen Cats before and I was ready to stake my claim in the San Diego Critics Circle by brutalizing this plotless spectacle.
But then, sitting in the San Diego Civic Center with my arms crossed, the joys of Cats simply overcame me. Witness the raptures of my published review: “As the overture begins, lights flicker, making the stars seem like a sideshow attraction. Cats with green eyes crawl through the audience, making the play almost interactive. As the cats dance, it's like a trance. When they do their many dance breaks, it's like a state of meditation.”
Then as now, to enjoy Cats is to let spectacle wash over you. Questions like “What is this?” or “Who are they?” or “Where are they?” or “WHY?” are all meaningless at the Jellicle Ball.
You must accept that Rum Tum Tugger is both a curious cat and a sex icon. You must accept that some cats wear clothes and some don’t. Most of all, you must certainly accept that once a year, a bunch of street cats come together, sing songs about their names, and then wait to see which one gets picked to die. If this is too much for you, then you have picked the wrong work of art and I don’t know what to say to you.
Critics and Cats
Critics have often found Cats baffling. It was famously panned as “a dog” when it opened on Broadway. BSR’s own Cameron Kelsall fired shots at the recent touring production that came to Philadelphia last summer. Reflecting on his own experience seeing Cats as a small child (and falling asleep) Kelsall said he was glad he stayed conscious this time: “If you lay [sic] down with Cats, you risk getting fleas.”
The 2019 Tom Hooper film adaptation is not faring much better. As you may have heard by now, he traded in the face paint, spandex, and faux fur for an uncanny-valley combination of live-action celebrities and dancers, CGI fur, and cat ephemera. (A recut of the official trailer set to the music of Jordan Peele’s horror film Us went viral last summer.) If you are expecting Cats to be a normal narrative, then yes, this is a strange problem that can be borderline scary. Over at Rotten Tomatoes, a critics’ Tomatometer score of 21 percent follows a published consensus: “This Cats adaptation is a clawful mistake that will leave most viewers begging to be put out of their mew-sery.”
Meanwhile, a local critic described his thought process while watching the movie: “This is physically painful to watch, and now I think I want to get rid of my cat.”
Stare into the moon
These catty reviews share my slack-jawed amazement that a deeply strange musical about singing and dancing cats even exists, let alone has been running in some form since well before my time on this earth. However, rather than run away from this shock, I say turn toward it! Do not avert your gaze. Stare into the Jellicle moon, for when you do, so much joy awaits!
Did you ever imagine that in this lifetime you would get to see not one but two Knights of the British Order meow and purr on the big screen? Did you ever anticipate that you would watch Rebel Wilson pick up a human-faced cockroach and eat it? While other human-faced cockroaches dance below her in horrified obeissance? Witness Idris Elba, sexiest man alive, transformed before your very eyes into the least erotic villain ever conceived?
I understand how this might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But as a fan of the flamboyant, the campy, and the deeply strange, I can’t remember a more fun or genuinely surprising movie-going experience. As movies become more and more homogenized and algorithmically mass-marketed to appeal to the broadest array of tastes, how wonderful, how purrfect, that Cats comes along to remind us of what it is to err like a human. I am so deeply grateful.