Frolicking felines took the stage last night in all their graceful glory, bringing the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic CATS to life once again – this time at Broadway San Jose. The fantastical, magical world of London's Jellicle cats, who are gathered together for their yearly Jellicle Ball, still has the power to transfix and delight even now, thirty years after it first opened on Broadway.
CATS starts off with an introduction to all the cat characters (with very human personalities) and we're told that they each have three names, one of which the cat will never share with another living soul. No matter, because the ones we do learn are quite enchanting. Among them are Jennyanydots, the Gumbie Cat (Kristen Quartarone), Rum Tug Tugger, the Curious Cat (Chris Stevens), Gus, the Theatre Cat (Christopher E. Sidoli), Skimbleshanks (Louie Napoleon) and, of course, Old Deuteronomy (the illustrious Nathan Morgan), Macavity (Clinton James Sherwood) and Grizabella, the Glamour Cat (a memorable Melissa Grohowski).
T.S. Eliot's genius for whimsy, combined with director Trevor Nunn's lyrics for the show-stopping song "Memory," mesmerized with a magic that even Mr. Mistoffelees the Conjuring Cat (Chaz Wolcott), could not compete with.
Webber's rich score provides a variety of musical motifs that succinctly capture the individuality of each cat that we meet. Occasionally a few sound glitches, including feedback and the abrupt cutoff of the synthesized orchestration, took away from the overall effect. These may have been opening night kinks to work out but there were other moments when the music did not crescendo with the action on stage and therefore did not do justice to the performers.
At the end of the Jellicle Ball the wise and kindly Old Deuteronomy chooses one lucky cat to journey to the Heavyside Layer, a kind of cat heaven or perhaps spa, to be "reborn" into a new life. But before that final conclusion comes we are treated to all manner of cats in the junkyard (set and costumes by John Napier) and they are a joy to behold. Original choreography by Gillian Lynne has stood the test of time and the cat affectations -- the sliding and rolling and rubbing against each other -- together with delicate ballet and smooth jazz elements work beautifully.
Lighting, designed by David Hersey and adapted by Rick Belzer, contributed immensely to the overall effect. Napier's imaginative junkyard set flows beyond the stage encasing the audience in the back alley world of the Jellicle cats while a giant moon bathed in dusky clouds provides the backdrop for the song "Memory," sung by Grohowski's Grizabella. Her rendition is plaintive, softly sweeping upward as she sings of how beautiful her life used to be. Then, treading slowly across the stage after being shunned by all of her tribe, her voice drops to the depths of despair before ending on a note of hope. "If you touch me, you'll understand what happiness is/Look, a new day has begun," she sings even as her head drops and she leaves the stage. This song is still definitely the highlight of the show.
CATS was a groundbreaking show when it first made its way across the pond from London's West End in the '80s. It's large, dynamic effects and elaborate staging stunned audiences and kept CATS on Broadway for a record-breaking 7,485 performances. If you look too closely at its separate parts you'll see through the thin storyline and be aware of the low emotional impact. You might even wonder why the cat chosen to be reborn comes back looking the same. But if you sit back and take it all in then you will be transported. It definitely has staying power, which is incontestable proof of its singular magical powers – to paraphrase Eliot!
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Based on "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" by T.S. Eliot