I walked into Theo Ubique’s No Exit Café and was both confused and fascinated. This is where I am going to watch Andrew Lloyd Weber’s famous musical, Cats, the second-longest running show in Broadway history?! To be honest, I wasn’t even all that excited in the first place because the last time I saw Cats, my brother and I walked out. Thus, walking into such a tiny, crowded, pub-like café made me all the more skeptical, BUT boy was I wrong! As soon as the show began, my skepticism diminished and I was surprisingly amazed by the energy and fun that quickly filled the room.
Brenda Didier’s Cats, with musical direction by Ethan Deppe, was terrific, and the intimacy of the show made it all the more exciting. In her solo directorial debut, Didier brings T.S. Eliot’s poems to life with captivating story-telling, on-the-mark Bob Fosse choreography, and music and songs that resonate for all those theater-lovers who are familiar with the standard Cats soundtrack.
Sitting in what reminded me of a European pub, with live musicians to my left and the cats characters entering from a curtain no more than a foot away from my table, there was no room for boredom. With the play’s vitality and natural way of sucking me into the story, and with such proximity to the cast, I even found myself terrified that the characters might come up and accost me in their ferocious, feline ways.
The musical is essentially a compilation of poetic vignettes told by a clan of cats living in London, and it was written by T.S. Elliot for his godchildren and friends’ children, since he lacked any children of his own. The play opens with an innocent young girl opening up a “T.S.E.” chest and finding within it a whole life of cat tales waiting to be told. Each cat has a different personality, but they all come together as they share each cat’s individual story.
The cast of Theo Ubique’s Cats works as an ensemble so skillfully that it is difficult to render any particular stand-outs. The cast of 13 actually takes on 20 different cat roles, so some actors end up playing more than one part, and each cat role brings a different level of pizzazz to the overall show.
Some numbers did, however, especially resonate. Practically tied at the hip, Mungojerrie ( Elliot Burton) and Rumpleteazer ( Maggie Portman), two mischievous pranksters frequently known to clown around, put on a fun laughable duet with a simple and catchy tune. Other standouts include the rather cocky Rum Tum Tugger, played by Tommy Rivera-Vega, who resembles Elvis Presley (in the form of a cat, of course!) with his electrifying, sexy dance skills. I still have “the Rum Tum Tugger is a curious cat…” tune emanating through my head.
Grizabella: The Glamour Cat, played by very talented Sydney Charles who plays the part quite well, inspiring intrigue and mystery. Despite her seeming glamour, Grizabella is a withered, saddened old cat basking in sadness and deeply nostalgic for her youth, as can be understood through her beautifully sung song “Memory.” Brian-Alwyn Newland is also fantastic in every cat role he plays. He plays the more character-y parts and takes those roles with strong, bold choices. From Bustopher Jones, the well-known fat cat, to old Gus the Cat at the Theater Door suffering from cerebral palsy , to pirate Growltiger, Newland is always alluring to watch. And if those weren’t enough roles to take on, get this: during the intermission, he served as one of the waiters! His intimidating pirate number with the Siamese cats was a particular stand-out number that brought a foreign flare to the otherwise London-based setting.
What was most astounding to me about Theo Ubique’s Cats was the way in which the whole production was able to fit in such a small setting, let alone such a small stage. The stage was one of the tiniest, if not the tiniest I have ever seen (a mere 8 x 22 feet, I heard!), let alone for a large cast of 13. How they managed to incorporate all cast members into practically every scene and succeed with such phenomenal dance choreography is an enigma to me that I still can’t wrap my head around. In addition to great choreography and singing that was up to par with the Broadway version of the show, there were the costumes and makeup, also impressive.
If you are looking for a serious, plot-driven, conventional play, then perhaps this show is not for you. But if you are looking for an enlivening musical that makes you want to get up and dance and sing in a small and intimate setting, then this is definitely the show for you. And it is precisely the intimacy of Theo Ubique that makes this version of Cats extra worthwhile.
Photos by Gary Ward
No Exit Café: 6970 N. Glenwood, Chicago, IL 60626
Opening night Sunday, November 21 at 7 p.m. Performances run through January 2, 2011 Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.,
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.,
and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m.