Farmer's Branch — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1982 record-breaking, award-winning Cats is enjoying a rebirth equal to the one celebrated in the tribe of Jellicle cats in the musical itself. The acclaimed touring production of the hit 2016 Broadway revival is on tour, and arrives in Dallas in November. The preview of the new movie to be released in December is creating its own buzz. And over at the Firehouse Theatre, an exuberant cast of leggy dancers and soulful singers is captivating old and new audiences all over again. At intermission on opening night, one pretty little girl in a ballerina skirt asked a grown-up if she could swing on the ring trapeze (once a tire) featured in the jazzy opening number about what these special cats can do at their annual ball.
Director/music director Mark Mullino plays keyboards and conducts the sharp six-member band cordoned off by an alley wall stage left. When a slinky cat pounces on a nearby grungy cement block while executing choreographer Christina Kudlicki Hoth’s feline-inspired moves, the stalwart musician barely winces.
Dancers’ bodies appear deliberately designed to inhabit Sydney Cornelius’s svelte and playful cat costumes. From smudgy, flesh-colored tights to tuxedoed elegance, from shabby-chic fur coats to fluffy white leggings, the thirty stunning outfits in the production are eye-catnip in themselves. Scrunched together in the “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” number, Kenzie Flynn’s lighting design transforms eyes and sequins and whiskers into a joyful moonlit glow. Magic, indeed.
The show’s famous literary underpinnings still attract. The lyrics are based on modernist poet T. S. Eliot’s 1939 Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a loving tribute by the author of the darkly prophetic poem “The Waste Land” to the ephemeral nonsense of our feline friends. If only we were more like cats! Certainly, in this production, we feel the human aspect of these sinewy and shimmering creatures, who’ve made a community and even a hereafter in a junkyard of abandoned stuff cast off by city people.
All the songs we know are here, and several cats we almost forgot come back to poised, meticulous life. Sweet tenor Malcolm Beaty is a properly grand Old Deuteronomy, orchestrating the decision on which cat at the ball will progress to another life in a kind of cat heaven, where nine lives is just a starting number.
Dakota Medlin is a whiskered and compelling Shimbleshanks, the carefree cat on the railway train, and Brandon Baker is sexy and gracefully athletic as “magical, mystery” Mr. Mistoffelees. Alison Thieberg’s beautifully delivered balletic performance as Victoria, the white cat with the softest fur, embodies youthful feminine desire, alone and in ensemble pieces.
Xavier Momjian kicks up the body energy with his Freddie Mercury and Elvis-inspired rock star embodiment of Rum Tum Tugger, thrusting his hips and luring all the tribe to dance to his sliding beat. Marquette Burnett is a flame of feline ferocity as the stealthy, rebellious Macavity, jazzing up the night in “Macavity, the Mystery Cat”, the most electric ensemble number of the show.
Craig Boleman is a full-throated and totally seductive Old Gus, the stage door theater cat who recalls his stardom at the stage door, clearly a tomcat I’d like to know better.
Dallas diva Denise Lee is a yearning and soulful Grizabella, the once-beautiful cat who recalls her lovers and her glory days in the show’s legendary hit song “Memories.” As always, Lee belts out the familiar lyrics in her intense, soulful style, wringing fresh emotion from the soaring melody. I’m sad she’s on her way out, but I’m glad that “glamor cat” is going to the “Heaviside Layer,” presumably the feline version of heaven where cool cats chill and await rebirth.
This hypnotic and visually attractive production comes with a warning: If you’re easily seduced by kittens and other mysterious cats, don’t go early to the Saturday matinee. Firehouse Theatre is partnering with Farmers Branch Animal Services to host cat adoptions during its run of the show. The adoption trailer will be parked in front of the theater at 1 p.m. ahead of each Saturday matinee. For $20, attendees can adopt a cat all vaccinated, chipped and ready to purr its way into your life.