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 Neil Simon Theatre, NYC, July 30, 2016

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Photo: Matthew Murphy

I have to admit, when I first saw Cats in 1982, I really didn’t like it.  I felt it was vapid, overly theatrical and it had no plot. Sure, it did have that momentous  eleven o’clock number,  “Memory,” sung by Betty Buckley as Grizabella, but, in general, this was not my cup of English Breakfast tea. I guess I was in the minority 34 years ago because Cats was a huge hit, running for 18 years until it closed in September of 2000.

This time around, however, something has changed—namely, me. I still can’t say Cats is my favorite musical ever—far from it—but I enjoyed this revival at the Neil Simon Theatre. Although it is similar and the orchestra is minimized,  Andy Blankenbuehler’s (Hamilton) rejuvenation of the original Gillian Lynne choreography electrifies the exuberance and musical excitement on stage.  The cats, with feline dexterity, spring with lithe friskiness around the stage and through the theater, musically driving this whimsically sociological study of cats, based on the eccentric T.S. Eliot poems in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and again directed by Trevor Nunn.

As the moon rises in the midnight blue sky, the cats, gathering for the Jellicle Ball, slink down the aisles, spinning, twisting, leaping across the stage, and climbing over the walls of what looks like a huge alley. The set was designed by John Napier, who also created the extravagant skintight costumes and fanciful makeup for standout characters.

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  Colorful assorted rubble and relics cover half of the theater and side walls.  On the ceiling, lights flicker like stars and, on stage, varieties of cats with at least three names (according to Eliot), stare at the audience with eyes of haunting curiosity.  It is a flamboyantly theatrical set, dramatized by Natasha Katz’s lighting.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score uses Eliot’s poetic rhythms to create an eclectic musical interpretation, uniting rock, jazz, opera and pop and much of it is catchy and indelible.

There is no book, no story. The company ignites the show with the catchy “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” (with additional lyrics by Nunn and Richard Stilgoe) and then explains “The Naming of Cats.” The Eliot book points out a cat must have three names and he suggests a few, “Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat/Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum/ Names that never belong to more than one cat.”

A few must-mention felines in this powerhouse cast, many with several roles, include: robust baritone Quentin Earl Darrington  (Kennedy Center’s revival of Ragtime), who rules as Old Deuteronomy, and Christopher Gurr sashays with pride as Bustopher Jones and also plays Asparagus, known as Gus, the theatre cat. Notable are “Mr. Mistoffelees,” played by a fleet-footed Ricky Ubeda, and Jess LeProtto and Shonica Gooden as the expressive couple, Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer.

The only disappointment is Leona Lewis’ interpretation of “Memory” (with additional lyrics by Nunn). Lewis is an able English pop singer with bland acting ability, and her rendition lacks the chilling pathos and stirring beauty that made it such a standout in the original production.

Is everything old new again? Even with its faults, you cannot help but indulge in the spectacle of fabulous dancing and whimsical charm of Rum Tum Tugger (Tyler Hanes), the snow-white glamour cat, Victoria (Georgina Pazcoguin), and all those other fanciful denizens of Cats. 

Elizabeth Ahlfors

Born and raised in New York, Elizabeth graduated from NYU with a degree in Journalism. She has lived in various cities and countries and now is back in NYC. She has written magazine articles and published three books: A Housewife’s Guide to Women’s Liberation, Twelve American Women, and Heroines of ’76 (for children). A great love was always music and theater—in the audience, not performing. A Philadelphia correspondent for and InTheatre Magazine, she has reviewed theater and cabaret for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia City News. She writes for Cabaret Scenes and other cabaret/theater sites. She is a judge for Nightlife Awards and a voting member of Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.