Cats came back

I’m thinking of a dark coloured t-shirt with eyes looking out of a dark background.  It’s in a child’s size, a much-loved shirt commemorating a happy memory excuse the pun of a fun show.  Now?  That child is now a mom, with her own child ready to see the show, ready for her own T-shirt (we bought one).

A generation later, Cats is back.  In its first visit I recall that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical was presented as a serious work with formal trappings, even if children were welcomed.  This time, however, I believe the show is truer to its roots.

ALW adapted a childhood favourite, namely TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.  While the work was –and is—highly original in its dramaturgy, the edginess of its style may have obscured the most obvious fact lurking in the background: that this show is not just an acceptable entertainment for children, but a family-friendly work of great simplicity & directness.

This time around Mirvish Productions seem to have a great deal of clarity about this.  Children are welcome to walk right up onto the stage during the intermission to see the set up close, snapping pictures with their smart-phones.  The marketing is at least as pervasive as before (T-shirts, CDs, decorative bags and more).  We’re more informal in the Panasonic Theatre, eating ice cream or drinking alcoholic cocktails, same as if we were at a ball game (i wish i could take my wine glass into the opera).

The theatre is full of children with parents revisiting their own happy memory from a generation ago.

While it’s the same score, some things are different.  I asked my friend Stephen Farrow, English music-theatre scholar, for his recollections about the original.

Cats in London used a conductor (and an 18-piece band, and four singers in a booth backstage to sweeten the sound in the big dance numbers), but not an orchestra pit. An orchestra pit would have been physically impossible, given that the entire stage and the first four rows of seats revolved through 180 degrees during the overture! The band (and the conductor) were in a room backstage. They didn’t repeat the revolving-stage-and-seats thing anywhere else (in London, it was staged three-quarters in the round), but they usually built the stage out over the orchestra pit, and the band was always somewhere backstage.”

Synthesizers have come a long way in the last thirty years, as have microphones & sound technology.  There’s CGI now, and if I am being objective, I think musicianship has progressed too.  Lona Davis leads a very tight show that ebbs and flows easily, leading from the keyboard as one of three keyboardists, with bass, guitar, two players on assorted woodwinds and a drummer/percussionist. Sometimes less is more.  Technology is probably part of this, as the monitoring & controlling of cues is wonderfully clean, apparently effortless, but I think, too, that this kind of show is now the norm rather than the exception: where singers are followed by a small ensemble without a conductor or an orchestra pit to disrupt the illusion.  It’s a tour de force even if perfection is expected.

Another difference that I think I detect is simply the nature of performance.  Cats is mostly populated with triple threats: people who can sing, act & dance.  In practice this usually means that the demands in the dramatic or vocal realms can’t be too outrageous, but there’s no mistaking the physical prowess of these Jellicles bounding across the stage.  If I remember correctly, one couldn’t easily assemble a cast of capable dancers who could also sing and act in the 1980s; but theatre schools seem to be filling that need nowadays, influenced by shows like this one.  What was a new performance vocabulary back then is now much more intelligible, not so daunting.  As a result Cats seems much more classical, unforced and poised in its balleticism.  It makes me want to re-appraise (upwardly) its place in ALW’s oeuvre.

The work seems boldly quaint, at once familiar and edgy because I see how daring it must have felt.  Without Cats you can’t have Lion King, to give the most obvious example.  While musicals were changing throughout that decade this show’s originality stands out, as i look back. There’s almost no story whatsoever.  If the conventional wisdom is that music begins where the words leave off, this is a special case, a through-composed work that brashly takes the stage with very little dramatic action.

I’ve been very conflicted about ALW: a man whose borrowings have long troubled me, less for the loose resemblance between “I don’t know how to love him” (in 4/4) & the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (in 3/4), than for the powerful Pink Floyd riff in “Echoes” that’s exactly like the most powerful tune in Phantom.  Having acknowledged what bothers me, i need to also admit his brilliance.  A musical is a very different animal excuse the pun from an opera. Cats is only one of several scores that make him arguably the most successful original composer of musicals over the last 50 years.  While I prefer Sondheim (and btw here’s a funny factoid for you, the three of us –Songheim, ALW and me—share the same birthday…one day earlier and it would be JS Bach.  Oh well), ALW has done much better at the box office.  Sondheim is more of a classical composer selling works to the musical theatre world.  Just as in the opera world Puccini gets denigrated for the sin of writing beautiful operas that make people cry, so too ALW in the realm of musicals.  Sondheim may be the critics’ darling, but box office doesn’t lie.  The audience is the ultimate judge.

Presented in the intimate Panasonic theatre (roughly 700 seats, without a proscenium arch), we’re watching Cameron Macintosh’s original but described as “an all-new Canadian production” directed by Dave Campbell.  Martin Samuel is an impressive Rum Tum Tugger, boldly taking the stage with a lovely voice.  Charles Azulay was an audience favourite as old Deuteronomy.

Perhaps the most challenging part is the high profile role of Grizabella, who sings that song, the one that everyone knows so well that it’s a struggle to avoid cliché.  Ma-Anne Dionisio gets to sing the song twice.  In the first act it’s subtler, leaving us wanting more, and indeed Dionisio held lots in reserve, suggesting the sorts of profundities in the song that may have been there once, before radios played it to death.  In the second act, when she didn’t back away from making a strong statement with the song, she seemed to get right inside it, surpassing my expectations.

Cats runs at least until the end of June (as I see a performance added for June 30th).  If you’ve never seen it, I believe you’d enjoy it.  If you’ve seen it, and especially if you have children I would strongly recommend that you take them.  It makes a splendid introduction to the theatre, and yes, an enjoyable night out.

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2 Responses to Cats came back

  1. I was interested to read this, because I’m conducting two production of “Cats this summer, the second of which, at North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly MA, will use what I believe is the same instrumentation that you’ve described. When I first saw “Cats” many years ago its appeal eluded me, but having worked on two productions with original cast member and dance supervisor Richard Stafford, I find it’s a really rewarding experience. “Cats” veterans find something spiritual about the show and their roles, and even though its abstract nature no doubt helped it to draw in international audiences who couldn’t understand English, there is also something “ineffable” (to use one of T.S. Eliot’s favorite words”) about seeing human archetypes in feral feline garb, like we’re seeing everybody’s id on display. And your comments about performers are also on target. As one example among many, here at Theatre by the Sea in Rhode Island our excellent cast includes a soprano named Lucy Horton, a gifted singer with a silvery tone and a solid high D-flat, who can deliver “Gus the Theatre Cat” with actorly insight and can also dance the Jellicle Ball!

    • barczablog says:

      Hi Milton, and thanks for the remarks. I really like the way you express your misgivings (“When I first saw “Cats” many years ago its appeal eluded me”), which is very respectful & non-judgmental. I think my own misgivings are clear, even if i am still trying to understand the show & its depths. I think your point about the id on display is a good one; i was thinking of addressing the show’s gender play (where some moments are easier to decode than others), with aspects of drag / travesty on display, although i am still trying to unpack all those ideas. Thanks for a useful contribution.

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