By Karen Isaacs
Few theater goes have no opinion about Cats – some adore the show and others disliked it. The same will be true of the revival that recently opened on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre.
When Cats opened on Broadway in 1982, it was a huge popular hit, ushering in the era of the British sung through musicals that perhaps reached its peak with Phantom of the Opera is still running after 18 years. Cats ran for nearly 7500 performances.
Now Cats has returned to Broadway. This time it probably won’t run anywhere near as long as its earlier incarnation.
Cats, in case you don’t know is by Andrew Lloyd Webber and is based on the Nobel Prize winning poet T. S. Eliot’s Old Possums Book of Cats. In fact, ironically, Eliot who died in 1965 won the 1983 Tony award for best book of a musical and shared the award for best score with Webber. The original production directed by Trevor Nunn was also known because the theater in which it ran was substantially renovated so that the cats (actors) could move freely about the auditorium.
Nunn also has directed this production which feels little changed from the original production. This is not a “reimagining” or a “revision” of the original. I haven’t compared it with photos from the 1982 production but costumes, set and approach seem very similar. The Neil Simon Theatre has suffered less destruction for this production. Except for using the aisles, the cats roam much less freely around the theater.
So, that leaves us with a straight revival. The question becomes “Does it recapture the magic that greeted the initial production?”
Let’s acknowledge that not everyone loved Cats despite its long run and popular acclaim. Many people found the idea interesting but the execution lacking. I have to admit that when I saw the original production by intermission I was looking at my watch.
This time, I hoped that I would find things in this production that I had overlooked or missed; perhaps with age (mine and the show’s), I would like it more.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The show has one terrific number – “Memories” which has been recorded by almost every female vocalist. But as many have noted, the melody owes a lot to Puccini. The original had a stunning performance by Betty Buckley as Grizabella who sings the song.
The show is basically plotless. A group of cats are having their annual Jellicle meeting in which one is selected to ascend to the Heaviside Layer: remember that Eliot liked symbolism. During the course of the show various cats sing (and dance) numbers that reflect their lives and personalities. There’s little interaction between the characters, less dialogue and a lot of dance. Now, of course, one could argue that Eliot (and Webber) are really reflecting on the stereotypes of human personalities and society, particularly British society.
This works if the individual songs are terrific and give us full bodied characters (or cats). But while a few of the numbers are achieve that – most don’t.
The pluses of this production include the scenic and costume design by John Napier and the lighting design by Natasha Katz. The entire production design was by Brad Peterson.
A big plus is the multi-talented cast of terrific dancers. Unfortunately there is so much dancing that the choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler becomes repetitious as the show goes on.
With a show which consists of all supporting roles and characters tend to do one number
and then fade into the background, it is difficult to spotlight individual performers. Leona Lewis as Grizabella is good but just doesn’t bring the magic and emotion that Betty Buckley did to the role. Certainly Tyler Hanes scores big as the rock-star-like Rum Tum Tugger and Jess LeProtto and Andy Huntington Jones score in “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteaser”. Outside of “Memories” my favorite number is “Gus the Theatre Cat” well performed by Sara Jean Ford and Christopher Gurr.
If you love Cats, you will thoroughly enjoy this production; if the show has always left you cold, this production will not change your mind.
Cats is at the Neil Simon Theater,252 W. 52nd St. Tickets are available through Telecharge.