18 September 2016
My parents say I was awestruck. I was young – seven years old, and it was my first musical. Cats. A flurry of feline acrobats spinning across the stage in perfect synchronization, chorusing the words of literary heavyweight T.S. Eliot in intricate makeup and patterned body suits. Of course, I was awestruck – I was in heaven.
22 years have passed since that day, but the same childish excitement overtook me as I settled into my seat at the Neil Simon Theatre to see the revival of Cats on Broadway.* It was my first time revisiting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s global sensation since I was a child. It has only been ten years since Cats last graced the Broadway stage, but the latest revival proved so popular in London that a decision was made to revitalize the show in New York as well. I believe that there is little point in reviving a show unless the artists intend to present a new vision of the material or to share the material with a new audience that can appreciate it in a different way. There are simply too many dynamic and interesting new works being created to rejuvenate the same tired material again and again (regardless of how profitable it may be). The London revival featured notable modernizations of the production, and I was excited to see how Hamilton choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler would update the choreography. I was prepared to see a modernized production of a dated classic.
Sadly, what I got was far from contemporary – far from fresh. What I got was the same show that I saw 22 years prior; however, I was experiencing it through less innocent eyes. What I got was disappointment.
For those unfamiliar with Cats, the show is about, well, cats. Based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot, Cats offers little in the way of substantive plot. Each scene introduces a new cat with his or her own idiosyncrasies as dozens of felines descend upon a junkyard in anticipation of Old Deuteronomy’s arrival and the selection of one cat to ascend to the “Heaviside Layer” (returning to a different Jellicle life).** Given the lack of intellectual depth, Cats can really only be enjoyed for its artistic elements. The musical is an exercise in lyrical poetry and dance.
In the Broadway revival, aside from a few minor lyric changes (although they chose to keep a line lamenting the “heathen Chinese” for some odd reason) the songs of Cats remain the same time-tested Lloyd Webber fare – upbeat 1980s quasi-rock dance numbers interspersed with soaring ballads. Director Trevor Nunn has once again showcased John Napier’s scenic design, which still resembles a sprawling junkyard jutting out into the audience with a large flying tire at its center. John Napier’s costume and make-up designs appear to have been fetched out of a Brooklyn storage unit, right down to the jazzercise-ready legwarmers. But, what of Bankenbuehler’s choreography, which caused quite a rumpus when Gillian Lynne learned that her old choreography was to be jettisoned in favor of a bold, new direction? Sadly, a substantial portion of the show showcases Lynne’s classic Cats choreography: hunched-backs, toe touches, ballet balancing and flips. Predictable and boring. It is only during portions of Rum Tum Tugger’s ode to self and during an extended Mr. Mistoffelees dance sequence that Blankenbuehler amends the Lynne playbook and infuses some of his personality into the dance. Unfortunately, these breaths of fresh air blow quickly through the stale production long enough to refresh the audience but hardly long enough to revive them.
Given all the artistic similarities, a natural question presents itself: what is the point? After catnapping valuable theatre space and clutching it tightly in its aging paws, Cats has committed the unforgivable sin of being frustratingly normal and indistinct from its predecessors.
That is not to say that there are no memorable performances in the present revival. Tyler Hanes’ Rum Tum Tugger is a saucy, self-involved sexpot of a cat who throws shade and brings serious sass to the role (all while belting out pitch-perfect vocals). Quentin Earl Darrington brings a tender gravitas to the role of Old Deuteronomy as well as a booming, passionate voice. Surprisingly, the duo of Sara Jean Ford and Christopher Gurr stole the show with their rendition of the oft-overlooked number “Gus the Theatre Cat,” with Gurr giving a dynamic and comedic performance as old Gus. Ricky Ubeda tackled the role of Mistoffelees with appreciable gusto and Georgina Pazcoguin handled her solos as Victoria, the white ballerina cat, with grace and admirable strength.
But, I know what you are thinking – what about the iconic cat of Cats? What about Grizabella? What about “Memory”? Grizabella embodies an outcast – beaten and worn down, the old and decrepit cat recalls her younger days when she epitomized glamour, but those days are but a memory now as her looks have withered away. Naturally, a part like that screams 30-year-old British pop star and X-Factor winner, don’t you think? Oh, wait – no, no it does not. Not even slightly. Leona Lewis is woefully miscast as Grizabella, although she is certainly a solid singer. Despite attempting to perform the part straight, Lewis slips in and out of “pop” voice, which left me wondering if I had accidentally flown to Vegas and wandered into a Britney Spears concert.*** To make matters worse, John Napier fails spectacularly in his efforts to age Lewis or make her appear decrepit. For perhaps, for the first time ever, Grizabella does indeed look like a glamour cat, undermining the entire storyline.
To say that I was dispirited by the revival of Cats would be a massive understatement, but perhaps my expectations were too high for the show that sparked my love of musicals. Perhaps adopting a childlike gaze of the production would have produced a more favorable impression. Unfortunately, I am no longer seven and not even Mr. Mistoffelees can conjure up a favorable review for this revival.
* I named a pet hamster Skimbleshanks in college, so you know that I mean business.
**If you are confused, don’t worry too much about it. The musical ends with a cat going to heaven and being reincarnated. Or something like that. Who knows. Did I mention that there is not much of a plot?
***Full disclosure: I generally would not mind accidentally wandering into a Britney Spears concert.