Memories could be fatal to this revival of “Cats” — specifically, the memory of Betty Buckley as Grizabella, singing “Memory” as it’s meant to be sung, with heartbreaking beauty and exquisite pain by a great stage performer. Leona Lewis, the British pop star anointed by Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, isn’t in her league. Happily, nothing as catty can be said of the rest of this fabulous revival of the 1981 musical phenom that padded its way around the world on little cats’ feet.
It’s showtime at the Neil Simon Theater, creatively transformed into a great big, beautiful trash heap for this faithfully resurrected extravaganza set to the whimsical poems of T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Cats.” (Look for the clever visual reference to the poet’s greatest work, “The Waste Land.”) Webber has smartly mined the natural music in Eliot’s jaunty rhythms and clever rhyme schemes, applying them to the specific characters of his cats, who live in the shadows but leap into life when the moon is high.
John Napier’s spectacular set extends into the orchestra, side walls plastered with detritus from the alley where these unwanted cats live, and up to a ceiling festooned with the twinkling lights of an unreachable heaven far above their heads. Natasha Katz’s midnight-blue lighting scheme lends magic to the moonlit setting for Heaviside, while those curious cats’ eyes winking at us from out of the velvety darkness add to the mystery.
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Andy Blankenbuehler, fresh off his whopping success with “Hamilton,” has performed no radical surgery on Gillian Lynne’s memorable choreography, other than freshening it up a bit. A corps of brilliant dancers leap with feline agility through every style of dance, from toe-tapping Broadway jazz steps to the classic ballet moves so gracefully executed by lithe Georgina Pazcoguin as the little white kitten, Victoria. All spiffed up in the colorful trick costume of a Tuxedo Cat, Ricky Ubeda frolics through the intricate steps demanded of Magical Mister Mistoffelees. While Christopher Gurr has certainly perfected his strut as Bustopher Jones, the Cat About Town, he also has a nice turn as Asparagus the Theater Cat.
The wonderful names lend much of the charm to Eliot’s feline creations — acknowledged by the company in the enchanting number, “The Naming of Cats,” lifted from the poem of the same name. Napier’s character-specific costumes (and extraordinary ace makeup) acknowledge the cats’ individual personalities, while luxuriating in their striking physical beauty.
But as it was in the early days of this enduring musical, and still is, the genius of the show is in the dancing. At this early stage of the game, before the inevitable injuries and burnouts, the dancers are in perfectly splendid form. Quentin Earl Darrington has great authority as Old Deuteronomy, while Daniel Gaymon’s athletic Macavity, Andy Huntington Jones’ regal Munkustrap, and all the other members of the Jellicle tribe are flying high — now and forever.