The Company (photo by Matthew Murphy)
Proctors Theater, Schenectady NY
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Based on a book by TS Eliot, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
“Cats are not dogs.”
There is no surprise in that statement. In the musical “Cats!” it is made particularly clear that this is so. None of the cats in this show is particularly lovable. I must admit that I am allergic to cats, in life as well as in this classic, Tony® Award-winning musical show. I’ve seen “Cats!” many times since it first opened, and while there are things I admire about it, the show has never been one of my favorites. That will undoubtedly have an effect on my review of this latest touring production, which is a beautiful version of the show, glorious to see and to hear. I have no complaints about those elements. What I don’t like is the show itself. It is pat. It is relentless. It has no heart, even though the barely-existent plot would have us believe that “heart” is what it’s all about.
Directed by an icon of the English stage, Trevor Nunn, and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler (based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne), the show moves as lithely as a tabby cat scaling a garden fence in under three seconds. The lighting by Natasha Katz leaves us wondering which cat is which, and there are plenty of them, even when they are identified by name. As each number progresses, the principals fade into the crowd and have to be searched for. They do reappear, but not where you’d expect them to be.
It’s hard to tell if the show has been cast with dancers who sing or singers who dance. Both disciplines are essential to the success of this piece. The singing is superb, except for one voice that was almost unbearable, a high-pitched, squeaking shrill. John Napier’s original scenic and costume design have been well adapted for this production, even if some key elements in my memory are missing; in particular a giant trash can which securely set the show in a city back alley. This had been the perfect locale for a show about a special group of cats who gather annually to celebrate their special status as “Jellical” beings and elect one of their own to be reborn into a new life. Along the way, we meet and watch celebrated Mungojerrie and Munkustrap (Max Craven and Nick Davis), Asparagus, better known as Gus, the Theater Cat (John Aker Bow), Macavity (Aiden Pressel) and Jennyanydots (Michelle E. Carter), all of whom gave their all and delighted the large audience assembled for opening night at Proctors.
If there are main characters in this musical extravaganza, they are Old Deuteronomy, the cat who rules the day while the others play their roles, and Grizabella, old, decrepit, despised and reviled by the others. She gets to sing the show’s only hit song, “Memory,” a staple of award shows, elevators and take-out food shops on major city side streets. Made famous by Betty Buckley, who originated the role, it has a catch-in-the-throat quality which is haunting and effective. In this current version of the show it is sung at least five times, an old-fashioned method for making sure the audience will remember it. Tayler Harris who plays the role sings the song most effectively and I didn’t mind hearing it again and again if she was singing it. Like Richard Wagner’s Opera Die Meistersinger, there is a prize for singing the best ballad in the best manner and that very concept decides the outcome of the cats’ ball, or bawl. Harris is a true find; she wins more than just the competition; she wins us also.
Indalecio de Jesus Valentin plays Old Deuteronomy and does a fine job with this pivotal role. In spite of his height and the magnificence of his costume, he often faded into the crowd and disappeared, only to suddenly show up at the right moment. Another quirk of this show. If any actor in this company has to touch us, Valentin seems the perfect choice with his clear acting ability and fine voice. I wish there was more of this character in the play so we could have more of this excellent actor.
I am, as I said at the beginning of this notice, allergic to cats and after all these years I seem to be allergic to this show, just as I was at the Winter Garden Theater in New York in 1982. I was certainly engaged while watching this stunningly beautiful production, but I didn’t really enjoy it. I will admit I liked the recent film version – I think I was one of eight people who did – because it gave the show a plot and therefore a reason to watch it other than the dancing. It just could be that I’m allergic to musicals which have lost the plot.