Do you like flashing lights? Are you turned off by plot?
Do you crave synthesizers in this and in that?
Do you love spandex-wearing dancers? (So hot!)
If your answers are "yes," you should go and see Cats.
The rest of us may want to hold back from seeing the first Broadway revival of this blockbuster musical at the Neil Simon Theatre. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, which originally played the Winter Garden Theatre from 1982-2000 (and has really never stopped touring since then), is one of the most popular and iconic shows of the 1980s...and boy does it look and sound like it. Director Trevor Nunn (who helmed the original London and Broadway productions) seems to have revisited the material with the attitude, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Despite new choreography by Tony Award winner Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton) and cutting-edge lighting, it still carries a retro vibe likely to delight those with a lasting affection for the British invasion of Broadway, but make everyone else wonder, What were they thinking?
Based on Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, the show revolves around the Jellicle Ball, a soiree at which the cats determine who among them will ride a giant tire into the "Heaviside Layer" to be reborn. Will it be bad boy Rum Tum Tugger (Tyler Hanes doing a sexy Bowie-Jagger hybrid)? What about Asparagus, the theater cat (Christopher Gurr, simultaneously funny and sad)? Maybe it will even be the nefarious criminal cat, Macavity (the puckish Daniel Gaymon). They each get a number, making Cats feel like a feral version of the second act of The Nutcracker: Plot is ancillary to a beautiful fantasy conveyed through music and dance. Essentially, it's just a musical about singing, dancing cats. But is that really all there is to this extravagant feline death ritual?
Between the hypnotic dance breaks and earworm melodies, it is tempting to surrender to the mindlessness of it all, but T.S. Eliot's Tony Award-winning lyrics always hold out the potential that this show is about something deeper. When Gus sings, "And I say now these kittens, they do not get trained / As we did in the days when Victoria reigned / They never did get drilled in a regular troupe / And they think they are smart just to jump through a hoop," it is almost like Eliot foresaw the dance spectacular that would arise from his poems. Amid such prescience, the promise of meaning flickers before us like the red dot of a laser pen on the wall.
Of course, we never quite catch it. The closest we get is with Grizabella (pop star Leona Lewis), the Mary Magdalene of kitties. Grizabella slinks onstage as her fellow Jellicles hiss and scatter away from this least among cats. She seems to be the key to the show's humanity, but good luck getting that out of Lewis' ice-cold performance. While her interpretation of "Memory" is polished and studio-ready, it doesn't convey any of the pain and regret of the lyrics. A sudden crescendo on a high note prompts an audience well-trained by American Idol and The X Factor to clap and cheer loudly, drowning any nuance in a tidal wave of sound.
The dancing is just as crowd-pleasing as the vocal pyrotechnics. Blankenbuehler's pulsing choreography is not as Jane-Fonda's-Workout as Gillian Lynne's in the original, but it retains many of the same features: the strutting, pawing, and creeping. One wonders what more could have been done with cats so uncommonly willing to be herded.
Certainly, they appear to be a talented bunch. The perky Eloise Kropp performs a memorable tap routine as Jennyanydots, but it is Ricky Ubeda's Mr. Mistoffelees that really stops the show: He leaps through the air and executes fouettés like he's playing the black swan. All the while, his ever-changing light-up tuxedo makes him look like a fiber-optic Christmas tree.
This appears to be a novel collaboration between lighting designer Natasha Katz and set/costume designer John Napier (who has been retained from the original). While Katz skillfully employs LEDs and moving lights to keep us constantly stimulated, Napier's scenery and costumes do not appear markedly updated (although one suspects that advances in Lycra technology over the last three decades have made the unitards considerably less burdensome). Embracing the show's vintage aura, Napier dresses all the cats in fuzzy leg warmers.
If there is any doubt in our minds that we are seeing a musical from the '80s, it is immediately dispelled during the overture, which introduces us to David Cullen and Lloyd Webber's synth-heavy orchestrations. Cat eyes glow all around the darkened set, making us feel like we're about to watch a live-action adaptation of Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal.
Such nostalgia may be just fine for the millions of people around the world who hold fond memories of Cats as their first professional musical. All the extensive touring of the past three decades has surely fostered some brand loyalty. Still, if you look around and see the remarkable creativity and innovation happening on Broadway these days (both in new musicals and revivals), it is hard to view this production as anything more than a museum piece: It presents Cats for what it was, while declining to further explore what it could be.
- Tyler Hanes
- Trevor Nunn
- Andrew Lloyd Webber
- Gillian Lynne
- Neil Simon Theatre
- X Factor
- Christopher Gurr
- Ricky Ubeda
- Eloise Kropp
- Leona Lewis
- Daniel Gaymon
- David Cullen
- Christine Cornish Smith
- Kim Fauré
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