'Cats': Theater Review

Cats Production Still 2 - The North American Tour Company - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy/Hollywood Pantages Theatre
'Memory' never gets old.

A top-notch touring company of the 2016 Broadway revival hits the road months ahead of Tom Hooper's upcoming all-star screen adaptation.

After an 18-year run on Broadway and seven Tony Awards, it's easy to assume Cats has lived out its nine lives. But in 2016, it came roaring (or meowing) back to New York, playing nearly 600 performances at the Neil Simon Theatre. And now it's on the road again, arriving in Hollywood for a month, then Costa Mesa, California, and on from there, just in time to prime audiences for Universal Pictures' adaptation coming this Christmas, directed by Tom Hooper and starring Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, James Corden, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Rebel Wilson and Jennifer Hudson.

"Now and forever" was the show's original tagline. And although forever is a long time, Cats has aged well, putting poetry, dance and music above conventional narrative in a forward-looking way that is organically fan-friendly yet uncompromising. No small credit is due to the touring company's talented cast of singers and dancers, led by Keri Rene Fuller as the broken Grizabella, and Kaitlyn Davidson as a spritely Jellylorum.

Where T.S. Eliot thought to provide versified silhouettes in his 1939 collection, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, director Trevor Nunn and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber conjure a bare-bones story centered on the arrival of Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase), a sagacious puss who, from among the Jellicle Cats, will choose one to ascend to the "Heaviside Layer," an event augured in the show's opening moment. Over Lloyd Webber’s synth-heavy intro, what appears to be a toy spaceship rises into the catwalk amid smoke and laser light, signaling the audience to expect little more than spectacle.

Thankfully, that notion is dispelled seconds later with "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats," featuring feline-festooned performers emerging through a maze of entrances in designer John Napier's inventive oversized junkyard set. An anthemic and rousing chorus number, it introduces the show and the concept before segueing to the delightfully schoolmarmish Jennyanydots (Emily Jeanne Phillips), who gets the mice in line with a tap number bracingly belying the lazy image of her song's title, "The Old Gumbie Cat."

Next comes "The Rum Tum Tugger," a middling tune artfully danced by National Ballet of Canada principal McGee Maddox, who stands out and blends in as needed with the rest of the cast, each of them embracing the rigors of continuous movement on a crowded stage of 32 that has Nunn adroitly doing the impossible: herding cats.

Coming off a decade of success, Lloyd Webber showed moxie adapting Eliot's clever little book into a show so thin on plot. In doing so, he set himself the ambitious task of composing a score that might match the wit and whimsy of the poet's words. The result is mixed. Poppy synth compositions peg the show to the 1980s, while a melody like the score's emblematic "Memory" is a fitting complement to Eliot's unpublished poem, Rhapsody on a Windy Night, which his widow claims he found too sad to include in the collection.  

Restoring it to the show was a bit of brilliance on the part of the creatives, with Grizabella providing tragic ballast to offset the sometimes relentlessly peppy vibe. Elaine Paige originated the role in the 1981 London production, followed by Betty Buckley's Tony Award-winning turn on Broadway a year later. In the years since, "Memory" has become a show-tune standard, covered by legends like Barbra Streisand and, in the upcoming movie, Hudson. Taking over for British pop star Leona Lewis on Broadway and Nicole Scherzinger in London, Fuller acquits herself with tragic grace, bathing in the moonlight and the moment as she hits the E-flat with elan.

Choreography by the legendary Gillian Lynne has been reworked in a minor way by Hamilton's Andy Blankenbuehler, whose touch can be seen in the slinky duet, "Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer" (Tony d’Alelio and Rose Iannaccone). Unburdened by narrative, Lynne, who passed away last July, offers a dance sampler including music hall, English folk, jazz and tap over Lloyd Webber’s often evocative anthems and lingering ballads. What’s not to like? Cats is a crowd-pleaser that keeps it in the litter box. Now and forever? Sure.

Venue: Pantages Theatre, Hollywood
Cast: Zachary S. Berger, Caitlin Bond, Nick Burrage, Erin Chupinsky, Tony D’Alelio, Kaitlyn Davidson, Phillip Deceus,P.J. DiGaetano, Maria Failla, Keri Rene Fuller, Tion Gaston, Justin W. Geiss, Timothy Gulan, Dan Hoy, Rose Iannaccone, Laura Katherine Kaufman, Tyler John Logan, McGee Maddox, Brandon Michael Nase, Devin Neilson, Charlotte O’Dowd, Emily Jeanne Phillips, Lexie Plath, Mariah Reives, Adam Richardson, Ethan Saviet, Liz Schmitz, Tricia Tanguy, Halli Toland, Ahren Victory, Anthony Michael Zas and Andy Michael Zimmerman
Director: Trevor Nunn
Based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
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