By Meredith Ganzman (@MGanzman)
For a certain generation of theatergoers, from 1982 to 2000, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats was a part of their musical upbringing. It was not a part of mine, other than that my parents told me many times how they saw the musical in London before it transferred to Broadway. And how it was not the cat’s meow for them. They reminded me of that again when I mentioned I would be seeing the musical’s first ever Broadway revival.
It’s an opportunity for some audiences to relive decades’ old memories. For others, they will make new ones as they enter the junkyard, designed again by Tony-award winner John Napier, on the night of the Jellicle Ball for the first time. But will those memories be good ones?
With lyrics adapted from T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” Cats, with Tony-award-winning Trevor Nunn returning to the helm, is the story of a tribe of Jellicle cats gathering for their annual Jellicle Ball, in which one cat will be chosen to be reborn.
But first the furry members introduce themselves through different elaborately choreographed numbers, by two-time Tony-award winning In the Heights and Hamilton choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler. Known for a fluid, contemporary hip-hop dance style, Blankenbuehler, keeps the dance surprisingly safe and all too similar to that of Gillian Lynne’s original choreography.
There’s “Jennyanydots,” (Eloise Kropp), “the old gumbie cat,” who we meet early in the show. Removing her round coat for a rousing tap number, she reveals a sparkling, fringe shaking romper. Then there’s “Rum Tum Tugger” (Tyler Hanes), the Elvis-like cat of the kitty clan, and “…he will do as he did, do. And there’s no doing anything about it.”
A particular standout is Christopher Gurr, who plays “Bustopher Jones,” “Gus” and “Peter.” Gus, the old theatre cat declares, “Well the theater is certainly not what is was.” And that’s true. Today’s musical catnip is Hamilton, and like Gus, Cats mostly feels old. This musical’s better days may now be behind it, leaving you to question, how did the fur ever take flight 24 years ago?
When Cats opened on Broadway in 1982, Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote, “it’s a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theater and yet, these days, only rarely does.”
Not even the nostalgia of magical, Mr. Mistoffelees, danced spectacularly by Ricky Ubeda, can turn back the clock to a time when Cats was considered to be one of the purest expressions of theatre magic and fantasy. Now it all just seems too familiar. Perhaps it is that in a digital age, we relate differently to these animals through online viral cat videos and memes. Or it may be that the original production, that once proclaimed it would live “now and forever,” has been mostly replicated, rather than reimagined, on the Neil Simon stage. Dare I call copycat?
British pop star, Leona Lewis takes on the iconic role of Grizabella, “the glamour cat,” who is anything but in her ragged fur coat, smeared red lipstick and long straggly grey hair. The look though, may also resemble any number of hipster New Yorkers. Belting, “touch me – it’s so easy to leave me all alone with the memory of my days in the sun,” the audience roared with applause. Rejected from the tribe, Grizabella wants only to connect again with her tribe before it is too late, before she is reborn.
Today we have never been more connected through digital and social media. Give Grizabella’s paws a blog and twitter account, she’d find a whole new tribe and then probably a book deal. But yet as, “Victoria,” the white cat, nuzzles her head on the inside of Grizabella’s paw, we are reminded of the necessity and power of simple, and often scarce, personal connection.
There is a new day for Cats, but it’s yet to be seen if this new revival will have another nine lives.