Dallas — Let’s begin with a confession, shall we? I had never seen Cats before. Nope, not when it premiered in 1981. Not in its long run on Broadway, or in a touring production, or even in a community theater’s rendition.
However, I have read quite a lot of T.S. Eliot, including his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the collection of whimsical poems that are the basis for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. Oh, and I recently acquired my first actual cat, the at-turns annoying and charming Margaret Catwood.
Perhaps these are sufficient qualifications to evaluate the current touring production of Cats, running through Nov. 17 at the Music Hall at Fair Park, courtesy Dallas Summer Musicals. You may judge.
This show is most certainly a product of its time. Though the DSM promotional materials tout Andy Blankenbuehler’s new choreography and Natasha Katz’s new lighting, the synth-heavy score is straight out of the 1980s. Likewise, John Napier’s costumes are mostly based on shiny bodysuits with a “kitties go to Jazzercise” vibe. Too, the plot is pretty thin. It’s essentially a song cycle Lloyd Webber wrote as a compositional experiment, and the plot — cats meet for their annual ball, at which they will decide what cat ascends to a sort of heaven to be reborn — is a glue that barely holds together the songs.
This production manages to be an utterly entrancing two and a half hours. With the exception of the most famous tune, “Memory,” which was written by the musical’s director, Trevor Nunn (and won a Tony for Fort Worth actress Betty Buckley), and a few other songs written by Nunn and Richard Stilgoe, the musical’s lyrics are straight from T.S. Eliot’s pen, and provide much of the show’s charm. Sets, by John Napier, are the ones you’ll remember if you’ve seen the production before — the oversized junkyard backdrop.
The cats themselves are spectacular — the production uses the aisles extensively, enabling those of us at orchestra level to see the cast up close. The costumes may be dated, but the makeup and acting are enough to make us suspend disbelief and imagine that these are human-sized kitties onstage. And wow, the dancing. This show is packed with triple threats. The brilliant dancer PJ DiGaetano as Mister Mistoffelees, resplendent in a lighted costume, can sing well enough, and the best singers in the company can also dance just fine. But many of the cast were simply outstanding at both.
The scene-stealing McGee Maddox, as the sexy beast the Rum Tum Tugger, has one of the best voices and most certainly the best stage presence of the show, although the eroticization of a human playing a cat is not a situation that withstands much scrutiny. The duet between Mungojerri (Justin W. Geiss) and Rumpleteazer (Rose Iannaccone) is charming, yes, but also transfixing: Geiss and Iannaccone maintain spectacular breath control while dancing acrobatically and singing. Keri René Fuller earned the loudest cheers during the curtain call: it’s she, as Grizabella, who gets to sing the lion’s (kitty’s?) share of “Memory,” the show’s signature number. Her voice is certainly adequate for the role, warm and sweet when it needs to be.
The orchestra for this production has decidedly unusual instrumentation: two reed players, three keyboardists, a guitarist, a bassist, and a percussionist. So essentially an ’80s rock band plus lots of oboe at more plaintive moments. Under the baton of conductor Eric Kang, the orchestra is slick and precise.
This was a well-polished production. If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll probably love it. And if you’ve never seen Cats before? As a newbie myself, I’ll offer that you probably should. And then go see the feature film version that opens December 20.