Recent research has shown that humans’ domestication of dogs has altered canines’ brains. I have a theory — it has not yet been borne out by science, but I am confident that it will be — that cats have done the same to humans. Why else would we be in such devoted service to these aloof, fickle, and murderous creatures?
Two of their greatest and most influential conquests are the poet T.S. Eliot and the theatrical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. The former wrote a book of light verse about cats in the 1930s for his godchildren. Some four decades later, the latter wrote a song cycle to that verse. He then explored making it into a full-fledged theatrical event. Investors balked and Webber re-mortgaged his house, risking financial ruin, to procure a theater.
Good call, Lord Webber.
Cats, through this brainwashing, brought about a cult of worship they haven’t achieved since ancient Egypt. Don’t believe me? Look at the acolytes, generation after generation, staring up at the posters’ hypnotic yellow eyes with dancing silhouettes, then shuffling zombie-like to box offices internationally (30 countries, 15 languages) and racking up more than $3.5 billion in tickets over then-unheard of initial runs and now repeated worldwide revivals.
Maybe it’s because of the enthralling plot! A bunch of cats are introduced and one gets to go to heaven!!
OK, maybe it’s not because of the enthralling plot.
Then it must be, as I have postulated, our cat-domesticated brains. And that’s OK (said the reviewer who fed, coddled, and cleaned up after his profusely shedding Persian-Siamese companion through childhood, despite his explosive allergies to her dander). This is our destiny.
The feline mafia craftily ordered Webber and his fellow producers to reach out to Trevor Nunn, of London theatrical royalty, and Gillian Lynne, of London ballet royalty, to put together the most unobjectionable, family friendly, middlebrow, almost psychedelically pointless, irresistible evening imaginable. The cronut of musicals, it was. And these remarkable talents obeyed.
Now here we are, tens of thousands of performances into our era of worship, at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. And guess what? It’s astonishingly cheesy, almost unbearably satirizable — and still highly enjoyable. If cats have nine lives, Cats is early in its extended life cycle. Our great-great-grandchildren will be making fun of this show, and yet obediently buying absurdly high-priced tickets to it in holographic bitcoin.
Cons: The orchestration, with its economical but woeful reliance on soupy synthesizers, was dated already in the 80s, and it sounds even tackier now. There’s a self-indulgent extended instrumental section with particularly hoofy, mindless dance toward the end of the first act. The beginning of the second act sags like MC Hammer’s 30-year-old drop-crotch pants. And the Old Deuteronomy theme is repeated so often that you’ll grow whiskers before its last refrain.
The North American Tour of Cats closes October 6, 2019. Details and tickets
Pros: It’s about cats! True, dogs make an anecdotal appearance in “The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles.” But should you seek a musical about, say, bunnies, this work will not be to your liking.
Oh yeah, and there’s a good song. True, there are 18 mediocre (and often repetitive) songs (if I hear the phrase “Jellicle Cats” one more time in 2019, I’m not responsible for my actions), but there is one very fine ballad. It’s called “Memory.” Perhaps you’ve heard it, since it is among the most requested of all time. Perhaps you can’t stop hearing it. Even if you want to. Even if you clamp your hands over your ears and howl. It was written by Webber for an aborted show about Puccini, then adapted late in the Cats production’s inception, with lyrics by Nunn inspired by Eliot.
Now, there is a heretical alternative interpretation of the musical, one slyly suggested late in the script by the wise old Deuteronomy, that this show about “cats” is actually about humans, particularly the sort of humans Eliot spied in 1930s England. There are suggestions, in “The Moments of Happiness,” that it is about savoring the present and relishing one’s youth, and that this is something our species too could benefit from. The idea is that there is a larger purpose and theme to all this hullabaloo we are watching.
I am unpersuaded. This is an interpretation that our cat overlords have advanced to confuse us. True, the human parallels help us anthropomorphize the cats, the better to maintain our attention on them. But the show is — let there be no mistake — about cats. And only cats.
By the way, this touring production is incredibly well done. Did I fail to mention that? Nunn’s direction holds up well. He should do Shakespeare! Oh wait — he has, since the 1960s. John Napier’s scenic and costume designs are deeply alluring: a mysterious moon over a purple, murky alley with an oversized car trunk and assorted metallic knickknacks; patterned unitards and fur trappings ranging from sexy to hilarious to majestic. Andy Blankenbuehler’s update of Lynne’s choreography is, for the most part, very compelling. Love those little feral leg shudders. And lighting designer Natasha Katz has great fun with spotlights, lasers, and LEDs, both suspended and costume-embedded.
The cast, too, is superb. Beyond the large, vivacious ensemble, Emily Jeanne Phillips and friends toss an unexpected torrent of tap into “The Old Gumbie Cat.” McGee Maddox brings a mix of Elvis and Hedwig into his pelvically tireless, rock ‘n’ roll preening Rum Tum Tugger. Tony d’Alelio and Rose Iannaccone are divine paw-de-deux partners in crime in “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer.” Timothy Gulan brings sweetly sepia backstory, then brass, to “Gus the Theatre Cat.” PJ DiGaetano delivers Mistoffelees’s aerial balletic mischief. And Brandon Michael Nase imbues Old Deuteronomy with vulnerable sagacity, then operatic authority.
And there was someone else. Now who was it? Hmmm.
Oh, right. “Memory”! Fear not — Keri Rene Fuller, as Grizabella, blasts the rafters with that ol’ plumb. She is mysterious and beautiful, in a dark Morticia-esque vein, and has a belt that’ll send the balconies into Sensurround.
There is a special hairball-inundated hell for audience members like the lady two seats down from me singing along with everything. But Eliot, in addition to a posthumous Tony (what’s his Nobel for literature compared to that!) has no doubt already been elevated to the “the Heaviside Layer” and there’s a spot there awaiting Webber too. They have served their twitchy, demanding masters well.
As must we all.
Cats, at the Kennedy Center Opera House through October 6. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot. Directed by Trevor Nunn.
The company: Zacharpy S. Berger, Caitlin Bond, Joshua Michael Burrage, Nick Burrage, Erin Chupinsky, Tony D’Alelio, Kaitlyn Davidson, Maurice Dawkins, Phillip Deceus, PJ Digaetano, Maria Failla, Keri Rene Fuller, Justin W. Geiss, Timothy Gulan, Emma Hearn, Dan Hoy, Rose Iannaccone, Laura Katherine Kaufman, Marina Lazzaretto, Brett Michael Lockley, Tyler John Logan, McGee Maddox, Brandon Michael Nase, Devin Neilson, Charlotte O’Dowd, Emily Jeanne Phillips, Alexa Racioppi, Mariah Reives, Adam Richardson, Ethan Saviet, Zachary Tallman, Tricia Tanguy, and Ahren Victory.
Music supervision by Kristen Blogette. Music director: Eric Kang. Orchestrations by Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Cullen. Scenic and costume design by John Napier. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Mick Potter. Associate director/choreographer, Chrissie Cartwright. Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, based on original choreography by Gillian Lynne. Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.