It wasn’t hard for me to channel my inner childhood Memory (See what I did there?), to get pumped for the “feline, fearless, faithful, and true. . .” production of Cats now playing at The Segerstrom Center for the Arts. I was nine years old the first time I got lost in the theatrical junkyard that houses the dancing, singing, acting ensemble of Jellicle cats
To say that Cats has had nine lives would be an understatement. The current North American National tour of the MEOWsical (Start keeping track of the PAWns), composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on T. S. Eliot’s book, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, is a revival of the 1982 Tony©️ winning Broadway production. The original New York City production holds the title of the fourth-longest running musical in Broadway history; now the next litter of kittens is touring the country with their updated tricks. Sadly, the litter box hasn’t been changed in twenty years––we’ll get to the sets and score soon.
The original West End and Broadway director, Trevor Nunn returned to helm the 2016 Broadway revival and current North American tour. Which explains why the staging and emotional climax feels familiar, albeit a bit past its expiration date.
As a CATnoisseur of the musical, I was expecting a brilliantly revamped design for these domesticated dancing kitties. An LED screen, moving set pieces, or maybe even a rotating stage from which we could see the show from a new angle––any of these suggestions would have modernized the musical without changing the essence of the show. Instead, the backdrop looked as if it had been hauled in from a holding container in Queens, NY, rolled out the night before and hung from the theater’s fly system. Aside from a few subtle additions to some of the costumes, they all looked just as basic as they did in 1982. The simple silhouette of a hand-painted unitard and a tied-on tail worked then, but shows like The Lion King have elevated what an audience anticipates in live theater. They say, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. . . .” but one expects more from a cat. They clean themselves, don’t they? Perhaps I’m demanding too much from a classic, but if you’re going to entice a new audience, it wouldn’t hurt to find a crisp hook.
Thankfully, the choreography was layered, exciting, and still true to the heart of what made me fall in love with theater people in the first place––grown men and women breaking the fourth wall, prancing and posing down the theater’s aisles as if it’s their very own catwalk. No surprise, three-time Tony©️ Award winning choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler pounced on the opportunity to groom a fresh new perspective, whilst maintaining the integrity of the original choreography set by Gillian Lynne. Mr. Blankenbuehler skillfully seized every accent in the very dated score, utilizing the evolved ability of the (mostly) well-rounded performers that comprise the cast. The choreography was both character-driven and––when need be––showy. Modern partner work, contemporary lines, and a mixture of jazz, musical theater, hip-hop, and acrobatic phrases littered throughout the major dance breaks add a savory and welcomed flavor to this otherwise bland rebirth.
In a predominately ensemble dance show, without a doubt, the cats’ meow are found in Tony d’Alelio’s Mungojerrie and Rose Iannaccone’s Rumpelteazer, who deliver true Triple Threat performances––and a catcall for stellar execution of the choreography is found in Tion Gaston’s Mr. Mistoffelees. Gaston takes technique to the next level for a Broadway dancer. The height of his relevé while fouetting (quick whipping action of a dancer’s leg or body) into a double attitude pirouette en dedans (a pirouette turning inward toward the standing leg) is second only to the elevation he achieves in his chaîné coupé jeté (series of turns and leaps) to second position. Wow, I cannot wait to see what’s next for this cat! I should also mention that while I didn’t buy her aged torment as Grizabella, all was forgiven when I heard Keri René Fuller’s belt while singing Memory. Give her a few years and she’ll be Betty Buckley fabulous.
The production wasn’t a total CATastrophy, but I can’t understand why the “Heaviside Layer” AKA Sir Webber’s production team would sign off on a new life for Cats––successfully reimagining the choreography––yet keeping the sets, costumes, and score the same? Dear Andrew Lloyd Webber, 1981 called and wants its Casio Keyboard synthesizer back. To be clear, I LOVE Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber––his musicals shaped the landscape of my childhood and I continue to sing and dance around my living room to the cleverly, catchy melodies. I’m not a total snob, where the score, set, and costumes feel torn and tattered, the energetic cast and chic choreography remind me why I fell in love with the show in the first place.
The moral of the story is Cats are resilient, but not always current. Still, the Memory lives again, and like a mouse to cheese, the musical moments will leave you smiling from ear to ear. Load up on catnip and head over to Segerstrom Center for the Arts to CATch up with the dancing alleycats now through April 14th!
For information and tickets, click here.
For more information about the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, click here.
For more about Andrew Lloyd Webber, click here.