I saw “Cats” when it first opened on Broadway a million years ago. The performers all wore skates as they swooshed along the floor, and they were rather nasty creatures. I was decidedly underwhelmed by the whole thing.
Which is why I chose to see it again the other night. I imagined that the passing years would have made me wiser and more appreciative of this unique musical. But I was sort of wrong on both counts.
The production now playing at the Pantages seemed to go on forever (it ran for nearly four hours), even though the theater pulled out all the stops to make it a “spectacular adventure”. More than two dozen cats swarmed the stage, gliding up and down ladders and marching in and out of windows and doorways and arches in the dim light of the evening. They had gathered for their annual Jellico Ball to sing and dance, and perhaps to mate.
They were Jellico Cats, after all, as they told us at interminable length, but most of their explanations were lost in the turmoil of the over-loud band that banged its way through all the songs.
As my friend commented, “There seems to be a lot of caterwauling going on.” In fact, it wasn’t until the second act that we became aware that all the soloists had incredibly beautiful voices.
And the dances were also incredible! Originally choreographed by the late Gillian Lynne, they were choreographed in this production by Andy Blankenbuehler, whose work has been recognized by three Tony Awards, London’s Olivier Award, and the 2018 Kennedy Center Honors. For “Cats” he incorporated slithery cat-like movements, flailing arms and legs, and countless cartwheels and flamboyant gymnastics. And the cats performed them all purr-fectly.
Another high point was the beautiful array of costumes created by John Napier. The cats were clothed in multicolored cat suits resembling some of the colors of actual cats, and each of the females had a mate wearing a variation of the same colors.
Colors were also part of the scenery as colored lights of red and blue flashed periodically from wiring that stretched across the auditorium from the proscenium to the highest balcony.
The plot, which was minimal, revolved loosely around Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase), the patriarch of the clan, and his former lover, Grizabella (Keri Rene Fuller). Each of them was clothed in shabby costumes of grey: Old Deuteronomy in a long furry raccoon coat that matched his hair and beard and Grizabella with her long gray hair flowing over a tatty gray ensemble.
While Old Deuteronomy spent the first act galumphing around the other cats, he came alive in the second act singing “The Moments of Happiness” with a cat named Sillabub. But the entire production reached its peak when Grizabella took the stage to sing the song that Barbra Streisand made immortal, “Memory”. Grizabella’s rendition was heart-stopping and the audience was transfixed by her amazing voice. When she finished, they gave her a ten-minute sitting ovation that literally stopped the show.
The book, from T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”, was adapted by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who also composed the music. The musical is directed by Trevor Nunn, who directed its world premiere in London’s West End in 1981. The musical then ran for 21 years in London and 18 on Broadway, setting records in both venues.
It is interesting to note that all three principals reaped the recognition they deserved: Trevor Nunn was the youngest artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and then director of the National Theatre, winning a plethora of awards along the way; Andrew Lloyd Webber has been awarded an Emmy, four Grammys. an Oscar, and eight Tony Awards, including the 2018 Special Tony for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. He has also been recognized with a Kennedy Center Honor; and T.S. Eliot, who has been awarded prestigious national honors by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, and 13 Honorary Doctorates, is the internationally acclaimed poet who created The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land, The Hollow Men, Ash-Wednesday, and Four Quartets, and in 1948 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his outstanding pioneer contribution to present-day poetry.”
“Cats” can be seen Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with additional performances on Saturday, March 16 and 23 at 2 p.m., Thursday, March 21 at 2 p.m., Sunday, March 17 at 1 and 6:30 p.m., and Sunday, March 24, the final performance, at 1 p.m. at the Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets call Ticketmaster at 800-982-2787 or online at Ticketmaster.com.