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The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings
A CurtainUp Review
Cats. . .Back on Broadway
By Elyse Sommer
Being very much a dog rather than a cat person, and with an admitted preference for musicals with a solid libretto, I by-passed the show when it first came to New York in 1982. But I did visit it at the Winter Garden in 1999 when Curtainup was still a toddler and a year before Cats ended it's remarkable 18-year 7,485-performance run.
I liked the immersive staging and energy of that production, the spectacle of it all — and, of course, the ear-clinging break-out song, "Memory." (Note: Despite T.S. Eliot's volume of children's poetry credit for the musical's book, the lyrics of that song were written by director Trevor Nunn). However, despite the catchy pop score, lively choreography, and clever stage craft, Cats didn't make it into my memory book of forever unforgettable experiences I'd welcome seeing more than once. Consequently, the announcment that "the Memory lives again" didn't make my heart skip several joyous beats. That said, the chance to see if and how Cats retained its audience pleasing magic proved irresistible. Maybe a second viewing would have the T.S. Eliot poems make more sense in giving all those floor hugging, human cats a more easily comprehensible thematic through line. There's also no denying the pull of anything by Andrew Lloyd-Webber. The man has an undeniable hit-making ability. Cats was a show kids as well as their parents respond to and that non-English speaking tourists can enjoy. No shortage of either kids or tourists ready to ooh and ah over a new edition of this eye popper.
The aura that clings to Cats' record-breaking Broadway run has deepened in te past few yers. While the show's longevity has been topped, it was by another Lloyd-Webber musical, Phantom of the Opera.. What's more, with his newest hit, School of Rock,, Mr. Lloyd Webber has achieved a rare hat-trick.
No doubt the success of the 2014 revival of Cats in London ( review) encouraged the producers to bring it back to New York. And wisely, they've done so with a new cast of top to bottom standouts and vital and fresh choreography that retained the feeling of the original. This does indeed boost the show's strong points, and if the packed house at the matinee performance I attended is any indication, the current anthropomorphic felines will be filling the seats at the Neil Simon Theater, if not for 18 years, for a good while.
American choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, currently represented on Broadway with the musical juggernaut Hamilton, has remained true to Gillian Lynne's vision and yet managed to make it all richer, bouncier and more diverse than I remember. While there's still plenty of cat-centric floor hugging, the ballet sequences seem especially take-your-breath-way spectacular.
John Napier's inventive assemblage of oversized garbage dump artifacts wrap themselves all around the stage and climb up the sides of the Neil Simon Theater as impressively as they did at the Winter Grden. With the cats in this habitat popping up all over the place, you hardly know where to look first. This all-over-the place staging had the little girls next to and in front of me enthralled and attentive throughout.
Other Napier staging coups are in evidence from the opening's skyward roaring ring of lights to the locomotive for Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat's chug-chug-chug number, to Grizabella's ascent to heaven on a giant, smoke-belching tire.
The costumes are also as dazzling as ever on this incredibly agile and talented cast. Lighting wizard Natasha Katz transforms the Jellicle Ball that's the focus of the thread-thin plot into a wonderfully eerie event. To explain that plot, takes no more than the perennial nutshell: An annual ball for the various furry personalities will culminate with a big cat named Old Deuteronomy picking one member of this furry tribe to ascend to the Heaviside Layer (AKA cat paradise) to be reincarnated. Whether I didn't notice it originally or the way the actors are directed here, there was no missing that this ending is very much in keeping with T.S. Eliot being a devout Catholic.
Except for the operetta flavored "Memory" the score falls within the pop song genre. Thus having pop star Leona Lewis play the once glamorous but now sad and aging Grizabella is an apt if not ideal casting choice. Lewis, for whom this is a Broadway debut, sings well enough but doesn't quite capture the heartbreak called for. Despite this, there's still heavy duty reliance on Grizabella's 11 o'clock number and the repetition of the catchier other ones, the orchestrations (by Lloyd-Webber and David Cullen) are just fine.
With two dozen performers to individualize all these female personalities (several handling more than one cat), this review would go on too long if I were to give detailed shout-outs to all — as this sung-through musical still does, especially in the first act. Still it's hard not to pay tribute to Andy Huntington Jones's Munkustrap, the fine baritone of Quentin Earl Barrington's Old Deuteronomy, and the delightful Christopher Gurr's Asparagus, the Theatrical Cat."
I could go on with more bravos for Tyler Hanes's Rum Tum Tugger and Kim Faure's putdown of Daniel Gaymon's Macavity, the mystery cat. But I've already overstepped my promise not to indulge in this show's tendency to let the songs and dances to overstay its welcome. So, enough said. Cats may not be a great musical, but it's a great visual spectacle expertly performed. While it's sure to collect its share of pans (as it did in 1982), many more will once again find it great fun.
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Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber- Based on "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" by T.S. Eliot
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler based on original choreography by Gillian Lynne
Cast: Giuseppe Bausilio (Carbuckety), Quentin Earl Darrington (Victor, Old Deuteronomy), Jeremy Davis (Skimbleshanks),Kim Faure (Demeter),Sara Jean Ford(Jellylorum), Lili Froehlich (Electra),Daniel Gaymon (Plato,Macavity),Shonica Gooden (Rumpelteazer), Christopher Gurr(Peter, Bustopher Jones, Asparagus), Tyler Hanes (Bill Bailey,Rum Tum Tugger, Macavity),Andy Huntington Jones (Munkustrap),Eloise Kropp ( Jennyanydots), Kolton Krouse (Tumblebrutus), Jess LeProtto ( Mungojerrie), Leona Lewis (Grizabella), Georgina Pazcoguin ( Victoria), Emily Pynenburg (Cassandra), Arianna Rosario (Sillabub), Ahmad Simmons (Alonzo),Christine Cornish Smith (Bombalurina), Corey John Snide (Coricopat), Emily Tate (Tantomile),Ricky Ubeda (Mistoffelees),Sharrod Williams (Pouncival)
Chorus: Richard Todd Adams,Aaron J. Albano,Jessica Hendy,Madison Mitchell,Nathan Patrick Morgan,Megan Ort
Scenic and Costume Design by John Napier
Lighting Design by Natasha Katz
Sound Design by Mick Potter
Projection Design by Brad Peterson
Stage Manager: Ira Mont
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours includes 1 intermission
Neil Simon Theater 250 W. 52nd Street
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 7/30/16 press matinee
Additional lyric material for Prologue's "Jellical Songs for Jellical Cats" by Trevor Nunn and Richard Stillgo; lyric for "Memory" by Trevor Nunn
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