By Vicki Paris Goodman
Cats is a show that’s been around a long time now. And audiences have either loved it for its ingenious choreography that transforms humans into virtual feline impersonators, or they have wondered what all the fuss is about.
Personally, I’ve always liked the show for its uniqueness and its dramatic, if a bit simplistic and sappy, story line. I’m a sucker for anything that tugs at the heartstrings.
To create Cats, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber basically took the poems from t.s. eliot’s (sic) Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and set them to music. Webber and lyricist Trevor Nunn wrote an additional original song for the show– that memorable chart-topper “Memory.” With lots of added choreography, they had a Broadway show that became one of the biggest hits of all time.
Within the various musical numbers, the show’s roster of cats is introduced by the distinctive names given each cat by the poet. Names like Rum Tum Tugger, Bustopher Jones, Mr. Mistoffelees, Rumpleteazer, and Macavity are a few goodies. Of course, each cat has its story, and I suppose we can’t help picking our favorites. As for me, I’m partial to Jennieanydots, the pleasantly plump and lazy but sweet-tempered “gumby cat” who sits and sits and sits and sits…
The show establishes a kind of pecking order, with the venerable Old Deuteronomy as top cat. On the magical night of the “jellicle” (eliot’s term for anything kitty cat) ball, Old Deuteronomy will choose the elderly cat– a feline prom queen, of sorts– honored as the designee who will be sent that night to the heavyside layer (kitty heaven, I’ve always assumed).
If the chosen one has succeeded in melting our hearts, or at least appealing to our sympathy, this moment in the show can be the satisfying payoff it is meant to be. This production gets us most of the way there. If only director/choreographer Dana Solimando had directed the actor to emphasize dynamics and emotion rather than pop vocal timbre in singing the climactic number, the effect might have been a home run.
Musical Theatre West’s production confines the show almost exclusively to the stage, which is further separated from the audience by the orchestra pit. It’s a shame the production team didn’t create greater cast-to-audience connection, as the show would certainly benefit.
Lyrics that were almost impossible to discern were a greater problem in the first half than the second. This is one show where the audience needs to hear the words being sung.
Still, there’s lots to like about Musical Theatre West’s Cats. The feline movement of the 22 cast members is something to behold. Costumes will wow you. An excellent live orchestra performs Webber’s outstanding score throughout the performance. And the quality of the dancing and singing are all first rate.
Musical Theatre West’s production of Cats continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, located on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, through Sunday, Feb. 27. Performances are Thursday (2/24) at 8pm, Fridays (2/18, 2/25) at 8pm, Saturdays (2/19, 2/26) at 2pm and 8pm, Sunday (2/20) at 2pm and 7pm, and Sunday (2/27) at 2pm. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased through the MTW Box Office at (562) 856-1999 ext. 4 or online at musical.org.
Photo courtesy MTW