“Cats” isn’t a great musical but it’s a great show and an ironclad smash. The latest extravaganza from the prolific and gifted British composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, takes Broadway legit to a new plateau of technologically enhanced spectacle and is an audience stampeder. Its good for a multiple-year run at the Winter Garden, where it opened to an enthusiastic uproar Thursday (7) with an advance sale of more than $6,000,000.
If the musical theatre must continue its infatuation with concept shows at the expense of narratives with human dimension, it better have more like “Cats.” This bookless cycle of songs set to T.S. Eliot verse has a gasp-inducing physical production, fiercely energetic dancing, masterful staging and irresistibly insinuating music. It can’t fail to duplicate or better its London success, where it’s a continuing 17-month-old sellout.
Lloyd Webber, director Trevor Nunn, choreographer Gillian Lynne and designers John Napier and David Hersey have collaborated to produce a transfixing environmental experience that makes up in sensual impact what it doesn’t have in emotional involvement.
The surreal nightworld of London’s alley cats, the subject of the Eliot source material, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” is presented as an enormous junkyard with outsized rubbish objects that wraps over and into the orchestra. The proscenium arch has been removed and the stage extended, and the ceiling has been lowered and transformed into a glittering canopy that suggests cats’ eyes and the evening sky. The trash motif is extended along the side walls and boxes back to the balcony overhang. There’s plenty of room for the unlimited dancing, and the refuse pieces are used as props and platforms, several of which move on hydraulic lifts.
There’s no spoken dialog, just a rapidfire series of 21 musical numbers variety turns and ensemble dance numbers set to Eliot’s light verse, which is a witty and pleasurable fantasy creation in which the humanized cat characters are given fanciful names and broadly identifiable characteristics. There’s Grizabella, a once-beautiful seductress now past her prime, Gus the theatre cat who fondly recalls his acting career, Macavity the master criminal (a la Prof. Moriarty), Mistoffolees, the mystery cat with dark powers, Rum Tug Tugger, a swaggering rock star type, etc., etc.
The wobbly story book is the annual feline ball in the junkyard, after which the patriarchal eldest cat, Old Deuteronomy, chooses one deserving meower for ascension into paradise and rebirth. (Eliot, not so incidentally, was a devout Catholic). It’s hard to get very deeply involved with this skimpy story, but the nonstop showbiz razzle dazzle carries the audience along on a tide of entertainment. The show cleverly plants a rooting interest in the undercat, Grizabella, the faded beauty, climaxed by her richly melodic ballad, “Memory,” which Betty Buckley puts over with throbbing intensity. Grizabella’s elevation into cat Valhalla, rising on a huge smokebelching tire, literally goes through the roof. It’s a socko eleven o’clock number that overwelms the audience.
Lloyd Webber’s music is a mixture of various styles, from Broadway to operetta to jazz to British music hall to rock, and most of it is entrancing. He has a sweeping melodic talent, and also a rhythmic, pop-derived insistence and a knowledge of “hooks.” The orchestrations by the composer and David Cullen are outstanding.
Nunn and Lynne’s high octane musical staging is impressive in its ingenuity and variety. The choreography isn’t terribly original, relying overmuch on acrobatics, but it’s often mesmerizing. There are too many slow spots in the first act, when some of the extended dance routings seem forced, but Lloyd Webber’s versatile music and the flair of the staging snuffs out impatience.
The show was painstakingly cast, and it shows in the work of the superb singer-dancers whose performances are a testament to the depth of American legit performing talent. As noted, Buckley has the showiest role as the aging glamorpuss and she scores musically and dramatically. Stephen Hanan is a triple delight as the touchingly reminiscent theatre cat, as an amusingly self-important blimpish type and as a pirate cat with a taste for grand opera. Outstanding in other turns are Harry Groener, Timothy Scott, Donna King, Bonnie Simmons, Terrence Mann and Reed Jones.
It’s certainly possible to cavail that too much has been made of Eliot’s low-key book of light poetry, that “Cats” is closer to arena spectacle that a legit musical.
The public won’t think so, however, and will relish its size, scope and vitality. There may be an adventurous film in it, certainly a cable tv production, and a scaled down version can tour. Everyone is going to be considerably older before “Cats” scats from the Winter Garden.