'Cats': Theater Review

Matthew Murphy
Leona Lewis in 'Cats'
Fans will lick it up.

British pop star Leona Lewis headlines the ensemble of this first Broadway revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's record-breaking 1981 musical.

The world can safely be divided into two camps: people who love Cats and those who hate it. The former will be happily satisfied by the new revival reuniting many members of the original creative team (with one notable exception), returning to Broadway 16 years after the closing of the show's record-breaking original 18-year run. As for the latter, this slightly scaled-down and rejiggered version is unlikely to change their minds.

The 1981 musical was always something of an oddity, foregoing a traditional narrative in favor of a cantata-like structure based on T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Its original Broadway success was due to a combination of Trevor Nunn's immersive staging; John Napier's spectacular scenic design, which transformed the Winter Garden Theatre into a giant junkyard; Gillian Lynne's sinuous choreography; and the earworm-heavy score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose ballad "Memory" became a song from which there was no escape.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a feline tribe, the Jellicles, who during their annual "Jellicle Ball" must decide which one among their ranks will ascend to the "Heaviside Layer" and be reborn. The various cats are introduced in a series of dance-heavy musical numbers. They include the sassy tomcat Rum Tum Tugger (Tyler Hanes); the tribe's patriarch, Old Deuteronomy (Quentin Earl Darrington); the fancily dressed, fat cat, Bustopher Jones (Christopher Gurr); the theater cat, Asparagus (Gurr, again); the magical Mistoffelees (Ricky Ubeda); and Grizabella (British pop star Leona Lewis), the glamor cat whose luster has faded, leaving her ostracized by the others.

Only hardcore fans will be able to spot the differences in this new version, which include some cuts as well as the reimagining and repositioning of a few musical numbers. The biggest change is the new choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (a recent Tony Award winner for Hamilton), which is "based on" Lynne's original work. More athletic and stylistically diverse than before, the dancing here is particularly spectacular in the "Magical Mister Mistoffelees" and "Jellicle Ball" numbers. Another highlight is the intricate "Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer" duet, dazzlingly performed by Jess LeProtto and Shonica Gooden.

In a testament to the advances made in synthesized keyboards over the years, the orchestrations sound remarkably full-bodied despite a drastically reduced orchestra featuring only 13 musicians, with no brass players. While the theater's interior hasn't been torn up as extensively as was the Winter Garden's, Napier's lavish set is nonetheless terrific, extending to the sides and upper reaches of the auditorium. The immersive effect is further enhanced by the performers frequently venturing into the aisles and getting up close and personal with the audience. The finale, however, in which — spoiler alert — Old Deuteronomy and Grizabella ascend on a giant tire to heaven, doesn't have quite the same impact.

The large ensemble goes through their strenuous singing and dancing paces with consummate skill, with the standouts including Hanes' boisterous Rum Tum Tugger; Ubeda's slinky Mistoffelees; Christine Cornish Smith's sexy Bombalurina; and Darrington's commanding Old Deuteronomy. Lewis reveals her lack of acting experience with her less than galvanizing Grizabella, but her powerful singing is not to be faulted. While her delivery of the show's signature song in the first act is restrained, her reprise in Act 2, featuring a rafters-ringing cry of "Touch Meeee …," is spine-chilling.   

Although it remains to be seen whether this revival will live up to the original production's tagline of "Now and Forever," enough time has passed for a new generation of theatergoers to embrace the show, while those who saw the original (and liked it) will probably want to return for a blast of nostalgia. And with the dramatic upturn in tourists to the Big Apple in recent years, there's no reason to think that this Cats won't be purring on Broadway for a very long time.

Venue: Neil Simon Theatre, New York
Cast: Leona Lewis, Richard Todd Adams, Aaron J. Albano, Giuseppe Bausilio, Callan Bergmann, Claire Camp, Quentin Earl Darrington, Jeremy Davis, Kim Faure, Sara Jean Ford, Lili Froehlich, 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
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Thomas Stearns Eliot
Director: Trevor Nunn
Original choreographer: Gillian Lynne
Choreographer: Andy Blankenbuehler
Music supervisor/director: Kristen Blodgette|
Set and costume designer: John Napier
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Mick Potter
Projection designer: Brad Peterson
Presented by The Shubert Organization, James L. Nederlander, The Really Useful Group, Cameron Mackintosh, Roy Furman, John Gore, Stella La Rue, Grove Entertainment, Burnt Umber Productions, Independent Presenters Network/Al Nocciolino, Peter May

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