Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Cats are much like you and me/ And other people whom we find/ Possessed of various types of mind.” – T. S. Eliot, “How to Address a Cat”
“Cats” – the fourth longest-running show in Broadway history – is back on Broadway with a superior cast of actors-singer-dancers that electrify the Neil Simon Theatre stage as the transient tribe of Jellicle Cats gather in the junkyard on the night they decide which of their number will ascend to the Heaviside Layer (heaven) and come back to a new life. This process is rehearsed in the opening number “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” and in Munkustrap’s (played with felicitous feline charm by baritone Andy Huntington Jones) narration. This number and “The Naming of Cats” give the audience members what they love most about “Cats” – the extraordinary choreography and the impressive ensemble cast that are the enduring “memory” of this iconic musical.
There is nothing really new in this current revival of “Cats.” And that is surprising. Eliot’s poems are a treasure trove of tropes about the human condition and offer rich and enduring questions about the vicissitudes of life, including the persistent questions about spirituality and life after life. Even the music and the choreography could be refashioned into a more contemporary mix of styles and genres. For example, much more could be made of the naming of the Cats. Each Cat is known by several names. Eliot presumes that Cats, like their human counterparts (or counterpoints), have three distinct identities: the superficial or every day identity; the unique or distinctive identity; and the most deeply personal identity that might rarely be exhibited but is the cornerstone of the individual personality.
Also unchanged is the somewhat discordant presence of what Mr. Webber has imagined as the main character of “Cats” – the Glamor Cat Grizabella who left the tribe when she was young to see what else the world had to offer and returns disappointed, disillusioned, and easily dispensed with by her peers. The character of Grizabella does not appear in Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” and is the subject of an unpublished poem Eliot wrote for his godchildren but did not include it in the book because he thought it too sad “for children.” If it was not important to Mr. Eliot, why has this character become so important to the musical? What might a “Cats” without Grizabella be like? Perhaps if Old Deuteronomy (played with a splendid sensibility by Quentin Earl Darrington) had chosen Gus (played with an unrelenting spirit by Christopher Gurr) the theatre Cat to be reborn to a new life, a rich connection to the state of the theatre could be established.
In this production, the role of Grizabella seems superfluous. Perhaps that is due to the lackluster performance of Leona Lewis. Despite Ms. Lewis’s import in the British pop scene, she seems unable here to connect to the character of Grizabella in any meaningful way. The singer seems lost when on stage and that disconnectedness affects her entire performance including her understanding of and interpretation of the iconic song “Memory.”
That said, the named Cats and the Cats chorus provides sufficient energy to overcome this significant flaw in the current production. Jellylorum (Sara Jean Ford) and Jennyanydots (Eloise Kropp) remind the humans of the importance of caring for community and bringing out the best in the individual. Skimbleshanks (Jeremy Davis) the orange tabby railway cat affirms the importance of the individual to the corporate structure and Mr. Mistoffelees (Ricky Ubeda) connects with the wonder of the magical and the unexpected in glorious ways. Even the mischievous Macavity (Daniel Gaymon) reverberates with the deep-seated villainous in Everyman and Everywoman.
“Cats” will continue to excite the senses of the young and the not so young and – despite this current revival’s continuity with the past – the musical will still embody the brilliance of the poetry of Thomas Stearns Eliot – with or without Grizabella. T. S. Eliot continues to be correct: “Cats are much like you and me/ And other people whom we find/ Possessed of various types of mind.”
[Sidenote: Allowing the audience up onto to the stage during intermission is a terrible decision. The stage is a sacred place when occupied by actors and when empty and guarded by the ghost light and it is not a space to be trampled upon by the masses. And actors – in this case the brilliant Mr. Darrington – are not cartoon characters to be gawked at and photographed during the aforementioned stampede onto the stage. What an affront to the mystery of the wonder we call the theatre.]