If you would know a cat, you must first watch him dance, and then hear him sing, and after that you will understand his story. So it is with the cats in Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of T.S. Elliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Though Elliot’s poetry – which was written for his godchildren, and first published pseudonymously – contemplated being read, not sung, Webber recognized the interior music, and exteriorized it. Cats became the longest-running musical in the history of Broadway.
Broadway’s Cats, and the subsequent touring productions, relied heavily on spectacle, so it’s interesting to observe how good Compass Rose Theater’s stripped-down version looks and sounds. Webber made room for fifteen cats, but Compass Rose uses only nine actors, and most of them play two roles. Instead of, for example, the commodious spaces of the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, Compass Rose offers its own new digs, which bear a striking resemblance to the old Warehouse Theatre in DC. The Compass Rose Cats, thus made intimate, more than suffices.
We are at a Congress of the Jellico Cats, which they hold annually (or thereabouts) under a huge luminous moon. Old Deuteronomy (Michael J. Belgey) – wearing a garment which looks as though it could have come from the time of the original Deuteronomy, and speaking and moving with the basso profundo dignity and gravity of Jeremiah the Prophet – is their progenitor, and it is he that pronounces who will be elevated to the heavyside layer, and be born a new cat.
The present-day cats are pretty swell. They sidle back and forth on Compass Rose’s tiny stage with preternatural grace, much like real cats. They stretch, they yawn, they shake themselves, they move sensuously and sinuously, like real cats. The mission of cats is to be, and to luxuriate in the joyousness of their existence. These Jellico Cats get it, and are every moment, well, the cat’s meow.
The naming of cats is a difficult matter/It isn’t just one of your holiday games…/But above and beyond there’s one name left over/And that is the name that you never will guess/The name that no human research can discover–/But the cat himself know, and will never confess/When you notice a cat in profound meditation,/The reason, I tell you, is always the same;/His mind is engaged in rapt contemplation/Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name…
Webber’s usual lyricist is Tim Rice, who is excellent at his craft; collaborating with Elliot, though, is a difference of kind, not degree. For one thing, Elliot was twelve years dead when Webber started to work on the production, and thus not in a position to accommodate his poems to Webber’s music; for another, this was T.S. Elliot. It is one thing to fiddle with the language of Shakespeare, but Elliot won the Nobel Prize, and one no more changes his poetry than he does the high mass.
So Webber was forced to find the music in Elliot’s verses, and what comes out is a sort of light, jazzy score. Those of you who know this musical only from the iconic “Memories” may be surprised at how atypical it is of the whole production; the melancholy meditation of Grizabella the Glamour Cat (Alison Rose Munn), in its wistful somberness, is a departure for Cats; the ensuing song, “Journey to the Heavyside Layer” – brief, airy, and full of Elliot’s wonderful specificity – is much more like the musical as a whole.
Grizabella is actually not from Old Possum’s book but from an unpublished draft, and Webber appears to have added her to give Cats what story arc it has. Otherwise, it is less a narrative than an account of Great Cats, including the two rascal cats Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Ishmael Edwards and Megan Schwartz, respectively); the bumptious Bustopher Jones (Anne Schroeder); Skimbleshanks, who runs the railroad station (Terrence Bennett); the fearsome pirate Growltiger (Belgey); Gus (Munn), the theater cat who will, for a good big glass of gin, tell you about the time he understudied Tom Whittingham’s cat; the clever Mr. Mistoffelees (Jessica McKay) and McCavity, a cat so devious and mysterious that we do not see him at all. It should not surprise you that this is what the show is about; cats, in my experience, have little use for story arc, and are all about personality.
Closes December 21, 2014
Compass Rose Studio Theater
49 Spa Road
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $20 – 35
Thursdays thru Sundays
Hah! My cat Max (I do not know his other names) has jumped up on my desk (a feat as, but not more, impressive as the four-foot leaps the cast of Cats took at Compass Rose), walked across my keyboard, given a little howl of triumph and now bumps my head with his. This is a sign of affection or – well, I don’t really know what he’s signifying. Now he is sitting on my mousepad, his ample body covering my mouse, and looking at me. I know what he’s doing. His mind is engaged in rapt contemplation of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name.
Cats. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber . Lyrics by T.S. Elliot (adapted from Elliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats). Directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne; Music Direction by Anita O’Connor; Choreography by Emily Frank. Featuring Alison Rose Munn, Anne Schroeder, Ismael Edwards, Terrence Bennett, Megen Schwartz, Jessica McKay, Cassie Bednall, Mallory Holson and Michael J. Begley. Set designers Joe Powell Sr. and Joe Powell; costume designer Renee Vergauwen, lighting designer Joey Guthmann, props by Jo Ann Gidos. Stage manager: Mary Ruth Cowgill . Produced by Company Rose . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
Closes Dec 21
Danielle Angeline . DCMetroTheaterArts a likable production that is both fascinating and entertaining.