Everybody has heard of Cats; for a time the longest ever running musical on Broadway, another musical brainchild by the incomparable Andrew Lloyd Webber. And I HAD heard of Cats. Except, I didn’t know a single thing about it. Other than that it was about… well… cats.
When tasked with writing this review, it occurred to me that for a show as well-known and often reviewed as Cats, I could offer something different - a completely unbiased account of this new revival of the famed production. And so opening night came, and I attended Cats, the Musical, for the very first time with absolutely no notion of what to expect.
Cats, as it turns out, is a musical based on an anthology of poems by T.S. Eliot, named “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” And the storyline is every bit as whimsical and eccentric as it sounds. The cats have magnificent exotic names such as Grizabella, Old Deuteronomy, Skimbleshanks and Rumpleteazer, with characters as diverse to match. To me, Cats seemed as much of a character study as a musical tale. It is pretty clear the cats are intended to be a satirical mirror to humanity’s own odd personalities.
The show opens with what I can only really describe as a fancy lighting show. Bulbs and spotlights flash and spark for a few minutes, while absolutely nothing happens on stage, and then suddenly, it’s black again. The audience clapped, but I was a little less enthused, and didn’t consider it that impressive an opening sequence, except for allowing the lighting guy to have his moment for a change. The show then properly began, and I ran out of things to criticise. Cats soared from strength to strength from there on in.
Word to the wise, don’t come to Cats if you’ve been having a clumsy day. The lithe, supple beings on stage in lycra will not make you feel any better about yourself. One thing that I had not anticipated was the sheer physicality of the show. The performers were outstanding; they glided and sprang onto stage with true feline grace. Assistant choreographer Joanne Robinson explained during the media Q+A that the cast had spent time workshopping their actions and movements in their individual cat personas, even occasionally copying real cats. That fastidious attention to detail comes to the fore in the numerous mesmerising dance numbers.
I had never before seen a musical so dedicated to dance – and I’ve seen a few. It enables Cats to have an energy and drive that most musicals cannot so consistently maintain. The cast are in excellent shape, and they radiate sheer joy during the dance numbers. At a little over three hours, it isn’t a short endeavour, but the time flew past.
Another point of difference I noted, was the ensemble cast dynamic. No role particularly outshines any other, with perhaps the notable exception of Grizabella’s renowned solo of ‘Memories’. Turns out that despite being a Cats novice, I had somehow heard this song before, which shows how much this long-running success story has in fact already permeated popular culture. This version of the musical is in fact a revival of the original, and some aspects have been modernised. The most obvious example of this was the conversion of the Rum Tum Tugger character from a moody punk cat, to a street cat who raps and wears bling. I, of course, haven’t seen the original, but the ‘gansta’ cat owned the stage, if perhaps also seeming a little out of place. Then again, that could also simply be the nature of the role.
Cats is a musical which can be appreciated from several different angles, specifically its spectacle, form and meaning. The spectacle lies in the costumes stage scenery, the big ensemble numbers, the fireworks, and the glitter cannons (yes, there are glitter cannons). The form is seen in the incredible skill displayed through the singing and dancing of the truly talented Australasian cast. As for the meaning, for all the eccentricities and whimsy, I think at heart, Cats is quite a simple and elegant story about marginalization and what it takes to embrace the lost souls on society’s edges.
Cats is running at the Civic Theatre until the 10th October 2015 - gather yourself a pounce, cluster, clutter, glaring or clowder (who knew there were so many collective nouns for cats?), and head along.