So much has been written about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s great theatrical achievement, CATS, that it is hard to conceive of anything new being said today, thirty years after it first took Broadway by storm. However, the latest production of the famed musical (which is based upon the poetry of TS Eliot—primarily, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats) which opened at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit on May 18th and runs through May 23rd, is certainly worthy of comment, just as it is worthy of experiencing in person.
The venerable Fisher, which has seen myriad productions come and go over the years, is a wonderful venue for enjoying live entertainment, of course, though much of its décor is now somewhat outdated and the temperature was a bit too warm for this reviewer’s taste. Still, it is tough to find a bad seat and difficult not to enjoy the electric ambience at the Fisher during a live performance. The old stage seemed to accommodate the set of CATS quite admirably on this opening night, and the acoustics of the theatre seemed well-suited to the production. The dazzling lighting was also ample and effective.
The set itself, designed by John Napier, depicted a junkyard scene rendered in scope from a cat’s point of view. It successfully provided all the spaces, platforms, nooks and cubbies necessary for talented tabbies, calicos and other feline varieties to strut, scrap, stretch, scratch and dance about the stage in almost continual musical motion. While the ever-present image of a cloud-streaked moon that looked like something from 1981—the year CATS originally opened—hung in the background, the other stage elements, such as the mechane for Grizabella and the mystically levitating heavenly tire that functioned as Old Deuteronomy’s personal pulpit for the final musical number, ”The Ad-Dressing of Cats”, worked flawlessly.
In regard to the music, each song, performed by the tour’s musicians, including three local instrumentalists, was played powerfully, clearly and evocatively throughout the evening, coordinating seamlessly, for the most part, with the action on stage. The potent and pleasing musical accompaniments only augmented the respective individual and ensemble performances, filling the Fisher with sonorous sounds from sinuous strings to booming bases to rollicking rhythms. Obviously, for a musical, especially one that proceeds from tune to tune virtually without interruption—not to mention one as well-renowned for its compositions as CATS—the skill of the musicians can be either a detriment or an enrichment. On this night, the orchestra’s splendid musical execution, directed by conductor J. Michael Duff, graced the entire production.
The marvelous and original costumes for which CATS is so rightly esteemed also did not disappoint in this impressive production, nor did the remarkable make-up, hair and other stylings that are part of what sets CATS above the theatrical competition as a magnificent musical. Cat-like creatures of every variety pawed and paraded across the stage in form-fitting costumes, followed by tied-on tails manipulated by hand to simulate the twitching and switching of those famed feline appendages. The actors’ faces, meanwhile, were so cleverly disguised and re-made by the make-up artists that some were difficult to discern as human when not seen in profile. Elaborate efforts were taken to tame or tease the locks of some of the players into shapes that emulated cats’ heads and ears, while other players adorned similarly inspired and delicately designed headdresses to complete the animalistic illusion. The costumes were certainly more captivating and charmingly convincing than they needed to be in order to please the enchanted audience.
As to the actual performance of CATS, the prologue of this highly-entertaining, two-act musical, “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats”, while striking and individually well-executed, seemed to lack a bit of synchronicity or coordination at times during the ensemble dance sequences. Unfortunately, this peculiarity persisted throughout the play, though never becoming a major distraction, and actually improving with each successive routine. The quiet, choral chanting of “The Naming of Cats” was a bit difficult to hear at times also, even in the ninth row, and was not always in unison. There were rare occasions as well when the actors seemed to speak a bit too quickly to allow every word to be heard before going on to the next, making it difficult to make out some of the lines. All of these factors contributed to an initial impression on the part of this reviewer that the production was not entirely crisp and on the mark at the outset.
Aside from these lesser criticisms, however, this opening-night performance of CATS was a genuine joy to attend. It was alternately exhilarating and touching, extremely engaging, and punctuated by true moments of theatrical triumph. The cast, on the whole, was a collection of superior talents, whose singing, acting and athletic abilities kept the audience amazed and absorbed, scene after scene. Indeed, the first appearances of the forlorn and miserable Grizabella (played by Michigan native Anastasia Lange), the mischievous Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer (played by Brian Baily and Kristen Quartarone, respectively), the Elvis-inspired Rum Tum Tugger (played by another Michigan product, Adam Steiner) and the aged and enigmatic Old Deuteronomy (played by Philip Peterson), were definite highlights, along with the ad hoc master of ceremonies, Alonzo (played by Trenard Mobley). Not to mention several ensemble song and dance numbers.
The second act continued to reveal more singular talents, particularly in the characters of Asparagus (played movingly by Nathan Morgan), Jellylorum and Griddlebone (played delightfully by Lucy Horton), and Skimbleshanks (played by John Jacob Lee). Notable also were the alluring Bombalurina (Cara Cooley) and Demeter (Lisa Kuhnen) singing “Macavity”, followed by the mystical, magical Mr. Mistoffelees (played by the insuppressibly whirling and bouncing Chris Mackenthun). The dramatic apex of the play then arrived in full force with Anastasia Lange’s emotive, evocative and astoundingly powerful Grizabella singing the stirring signature tune, “Memory”, which was so enthusiastically applauded that it nearly received a standing ovation. And finally, CATS culminated fittingly with the vibrantly resonant, deeply operatic intonations of Philip Peterson’s Old Deuteronomy singing “The Ad-dressing of CATS.”
As alluded to earlier in regard to the ensemble numbers, the opening-night performance of CATS here in Detroit seemed to grow stronger as the evening progressed. It is no wonder that this CATS-Eye, LLC production, the only North American production of CATS sanctioned by Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, is beloved and renowned wherever it plays. It was clear from the rousing standing ovation given to the cast at the end of the performance that the audience longed to linger in the scintillating moments of spectacle and sheer elation that CATS created for all who attended. If you ever should have opportunity to see CATS for yourself, at the Fisher Theatre or elsewhere, I suggest you dig in your claws and indulge yourself in this wondrously unique and original theatrical celebration of feline life.
CATS will be playing at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit through May 23rd. Ticket prices range from $29-$69 (includes parking and facility fees). Tickets are on sale at the Fisher Theatre box office, www.broadwayindetroit.com , all Ticketmaster locations, www.ticketmaster.com and by phone at 1-800-982-2787. For group sales (12 or more) please call (313) 871-1132 or visit [email protected].