Saturday, March 2, 2019

Review: The CATS Phenomenon Continues at the Hollywood Pantages

Dan Hoy as Munkustrap. All photos by Matthew Murphy

Without a doubt, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical CATS is of an era. Based on one of Lloyd Webber’s favorite books as a child, T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, it was a perfect vehicle for the tastes of theatre lovers in the eighties, the decade of excess. The large-scale production, which opened on Broadway in 1982, was a highly theatrical concept featuring an elaborate light show, impressive dance numbers, and an intoxicating score, exactly what the public had come to expect from the composer of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita.

It also had cats. Lots and lot of cats. A cast of 26 humans, spectacularly costumed and greasepainted, were choreographed to move with all the quirks and habits of their feline counterparts. Crowds ate it up.

Cut to today and the Trevor Nunn-directed North American tour that just opened at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre and you’ll see that little has changed. Fans of the original won’t be disappointed by the bewitcing revival and, from the thundering applause heard on opening night, today’s audience loves the theatricality as much as it did 27 years ago.

Yes, it’s dated, (the prominent appearance of a boom box is a not so subtle reminder) and it will never win over fans looking for intellectual fare, but it does a remarkable job of paying homage to the man who owned the genre at a high point in musical theatre’s evolution. The original production won seven Tony awards, ran for 18 years on Broadway, and has been seen by more than 73 million people around the world. Say what you will, the CATS phenomenon is nothing to sneeze at.

Neither is the hardworking cast who performs this show eight times a week. This group of athletes is in top form as they fluidly move through Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, based on Gillian Lynne’s original work on the show. The physical stamina required is mind-boggling and yet they make it look effortless.

Ensemble numbers are exciting and packed with leaps, pirouettes, gymnastics, and plenty of fancy footwork. Specialty song and dances are filled with bold personality, the most engaging of which is Munkustrap (Dan Hoy), the alpha male protector of the group who also acts as narrator. In a show that can overwhelm the senses with all of its moving parts, his face in stillness is a wonder.

Fat cat Jennyanydots (Emily Jeanne Phillips) energetically taps her way through “The Old Gumbie Cat” while Mungojerrie (Tony d’Alelio) and Rumpelteazer (Rose Iannaccone) wrap around each other like fun-loving pretzels with mischief on their minds. Victoria (Caitlin Bond), the White Cat, and her pas de deux partner Plato (Tyler John Logan) are gorgeous to watch and Mistoffelees (Tion Gaston) is a crowd-pleaser in his LED light up tux and effects-driven breakout performance. Rum Tum Tugger (McGee Maddox) is the Mick Jagger of cats with a rock star persona that has his feline groupies swooning at every turn. Demeter (Liz Schmitz) and Bombalurina (Lexie Plath) slither through a terrific Pink Panther-sounding explanation of “McCavity, The Mystery Cat”. It’s interesting to note that Bombalurina is the role Taylor Swift will play in the film version of CATS out later this year.

McGee Maddox as Rum Tum Tugger

But the most moving performance of all comes not from one of the dancing cats but from the “actor” of the group, Timothy Gulan as Gus the Theatre Cat. Once a great thespian but now old and rickety, his song has the sweetest of melodies and Gulan is so openly vulnerable and charming in his innocence that it’s enough to break your heart. Also, his singing voice matches his character.

The same cannot be said of Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase), the leader of this group of cats and the oldest of the bunch. Instead, Nase has a strong youthful tenor voice and is dressed tragically like a walking shag carpet. Both are unfortunate creative decisions that undermine the integrity of the show and make the character seem like a joke. His purpose as the elder is to choose the cat who will be reborn into their next life yet it’s hard to take him seriously as currently envisioned.

The other disappointment is the role of Grizabella which won Betty Buckley a Tony award for her unforgettable performance of what would become her signature ballad, “Memory.” Currently played by Keri René Fuller as a physically twisted and broken cat, each time she appears on stage all the air gets sucked out of the room. “Memory” is still met with rousing applause because it is so recognizable but the voice falters without a deeper maturity level to anchor the character’s emotion.

CATS is at its best when the dancing takes over and carries the audience away to a whimsical world where a tire rising out of a junkyard becomes a space ship headed to another life, a string of lights is all that's needed to beckon us into a moonlight ball, and the sound of breaking glass signals a hidden villain on the loose. Who knows when you'll be invited to this kind of fantastical party again.

February 26 – March 24, 2019
Hollywood Pantages Theatre
6233 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  90028
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