Thursday, July 25, 2019

More Than a Feline: Revived Cats Remains a Rather Curious Musical -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

National Tour
Nederlander Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 4

For a long time, I consciously avoided Cats, and not just because I’m allergic to the real-life furballs. 

After opening big in London in 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats hit Broadway the next year, and my dad was enough of a Broadway fan that I was aware of the phenomenon.

So when Cats first came to Chicago in March 1985, and stayed for over a year, it was a pretty big deal.

But though my parents took my sisters to see the show, I resisted, presumably being too cool as a high school junior/senior to see a bunch of singing & dancing cats. (For various reasons, including teenage peer pressure, trepidations about perceptions of one’s sexuality and having a tempestuous relationship with my dad, I didn’t fully embrace musical theater until years later, despite being exposed to it quite young.)

During the 1990s, Cats became the longest-running show ever on Broadway—its since been surpassed by Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, as well as The Lion King and Chicago—but after 17+ years a closing date was announced for June 2000.

That month, I happened to go to NYC to see my musical hero, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band at Madison Square Garden, on Saturday, June 17. (Calling Ticketmaster from my home near Chicago, I fortuitously snagged a seat in the 10th row center.)

And for that same day, I got a matinee ticket to Cats, figuring I should see it before the closure. (…which wound up being pushed back a few months.)

I didn’t love Cats but liked it sufficiently.

Then in 2003, the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, IL, a fine self-producing venue in the Chicago suburbs that presents shows in-the-round, staged a particularly innovative, intimate and enjoyable version of Cats.

Another 16 years have gone by and—until Tuesday—I hadn’t seen Cats again since. Nor ever felt much of a hankering.

But there’s a presently a U.S. National Tour, derived from the 2016 Broadway revival of Cats, still under the direction—as since London in 1981—of Trevor Nunn, with Andy Blankenbuehler replicating the original choreography by Gillian Lynne. (Blankenbuehler had notably choreographed Hamilton.)

I’m not sure if it would’ve piqued my interest had it not been part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription series, but it was.

And so I saw Cats once again, at the splendiferous Nederlander Theater, long-known as the Oriental. 

So what did I think of Cats, all these years later?

It’s good. For what it is. Which probably sounds like a back-pawed compliment. And likely is. 

Though I believe in the oeuvre of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats ranks behind Evita, Phantom of the Opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, Sunset Boulevard, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Aspects of Love and perhaps some others—I have a soft spot for The Beautiful Game and The Woman in White, having seen them in London—I can’t deny that ALW imbued Eliot’s poems with some nice melodies.

The overture is lovely, while “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” nicely establishes that the musical chronicles a tribe of cats known as the Jellicles.

From there are songs spotlighting a certain cat, or perhaps a pair.

Many of these test my patience, but “Rum Tum Tugger,” “Old Deuteronomy” and “Gus: The Theatre Cat” are relative highlights, and “Mr. Mistoffelees” is gleeful near the end (if not as pirouetting as I recalled the dancing to once be).

And, as a showpiece for Grizabella, a formerly glamorous cat, “Memory” stands among Webber’s—and musical theater’s—greatest ballads. Keri René Fuller handles it nicely in this cast, twice.

So with a few terrific songs and several decent ones, delivered by a talented touring cast, Cats is entertaining. Though I can’t cite anything specific Blankenbuehler did with the choreography, there is good dancing to go along with fine singing and stellar musicianship.

And looking at musical theater as a more holistic enterprise, Cats truly is remarkable when it comes to costuming—by John Napier, who also did the sets—and makeup.

If it’s a show that indoctrinates kids to the wonders of musical theater, that’s only a good thing.

And there’s undeniably tons of talent in this cast, including Tony d’Alelio (Mungojerry), Rose Lannaconne (Rumpleteaser), Tyler John Logan (Plato/Macavity), Brandon Michael Nase (Victor/Old Deuteronomy), McGee Maddox (Bill Bailey/Rum Tum Tugger), Tion Gaston (Mistoffelees), the aforementioned Fuller and essentially everyone else.

Yet while Cats is an entertaining musical that I have no problem calling a “good” one, partially due to the lack of a cohesive storyline—even compared to the episodic A Chorus Line, there’s virtually no narrative thread between amidst the cat tales—it’s not a particularly meaningful one.

And while “great” is certainly subjective, it’s interesting to note that—at least for the next few days—Chicago’s Loop is home to four of the most popular Broadway musicals ever created.

But whereas Hamilton, Les Misérables and The Music Man are brilliant shows with stellar or truly superlative productions, Cats is, well, considerably less than purr-fect.

If you’re a fan, see it; this is a fine tour. If you want to take the kids, sure, why not.

But if—seemingly like a young man sitting near me, you decide to attend just because, and you find yourself wondering “WTF?” is going on—well, consider yourself forewarned.

I still don’t love Cats.

No comments: