They say the past is a foreign country. “Cats” makes it seem like a different species as well. Back in the West End after a 12-year absence, and boosted at the box office by a star turn from Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-musical might be one of the strangest things ever to have happened onstage; as much a novelty variety show as a straight-up tuner. Inexplicably, though, it still works pretty well, with storybook charm, retro pizzazz and songs that are as catchy as fleas.
Scherzinger’s presence makes the plot, such as it is, look all the more like a feline version of the “X Factor.” Nicholas Pound’s gruff Old Deuteronomy sits in judgment at the annual Jellicle Ball, as, one by one, various tomcats put themselves forward for reincarnation.
It’s as good a structure as any, given the source material is T.S. Eliot’s poetry collection “Old Possum’s Book of Pratical Cats.” Lloyd Webber’s score flits happily from one genre to another: hymnal one moment, raunchy the next, with detours via funk and operetta. It’s over-insistent — it’s Lloyd Webber — but several numbers weld themselves into your brain as a result, and the best come late on.
Among those seeking salvation are pompous old-boy Bustopher Jones (Paul F. Monaghan), East End crooks Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Benjamin Yates and Dawn Williams) and Scherzinger’s onetime glamourpuss Grizabella, once a star, now hanging out by the bins at Tottenham Court Road. You get a real sense of old London, and a melancholic motif about old age and former glories. “Memory” crowns that and, vocally, Scherzinger’s superb, belting it out to soaring effect. Physically, she’s less convincing, hunching her back and shuffling like every school-play pensioner.
On that front, she sticks out from a top-drawer ensemble. It’s easy to forget how dance-heavy Trevor Nunn’s production was, and Gillian Lynne’s choreography remains, far and away, its strongest suit. Lynne, who missed opening night after fracturing ten ribs in an accident two days before, fills the stage with high-kicks and hyperextensions, combining ballet and contemporary dance into a mesmeric feline physicality. Few modern musicals dare attempt such rich, layered routines.
That’s the curiosity of “Cats”: It feels both dated and vintage at the same time. Napier’s lyrca and leg-warmer catsuits look slightly absurd, but there’s an eerie moonlit atmosphere that would have got lost in an update. It falls short on spectacle — hydraulics and trapeze swings don’t cut it today — but retains something more classical, such as leftover traces of kabuki and Balinese dance.
There’s one nod to modernity. Rather than rocking out, the Rum Tum Tugger now raps. (“Rum to the tum.”) Antoine Murray-Straughan struts around, blinged up, with his hands forever down his MC Hammer pants. It feels like a misstep, out of kilter with everything else and, worse, tokenistic. Little in life is as inauthentic as a Lloyd Webber grime number.