At the Nederlander Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –After decades on the local, national, and international theater scene, a theatergoer might expect that “Cats” offers no further surprises. Not so. Check out the new production that has settled into the Nederlander Theatre for a too brief three weeks. I’ve seen the show maybe 10 times and this is the most visually ravishing and spectacularly danced presentation I’ve ever attended. The verdict is an unqualified “See it.” The rest of this review is commentary.
The current version, now on a North American tour, is based on the original fantasy that opened on Broadway in 1982 and ran for so long it became a joke for late night TV comics. The show preserves its roots in a series of poems written by T.S. Eliot and published in 1939 as “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” but the original concept been freshened into a virtually new show.
The slender narrative brings together a large group of humanoid cats who gather once a year at the Jellicle Cats ball, the climax being the selection of one cat in the group to ascend to the Heaviside Layer to be returned reborn to their world. John Napier’s original multilevel single set design remains an oversized junkyard that looks like a grotesque environment out of an Ivan Albright painting.
“Cats” is really a sequence of production numbers connected by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score, Trevor Nunn’s imaginative directing, John Napier’s set and costume designs, and especially choreography that has passed through several hands over the years to reach its current marvelous level of athleticism, high energy, and spectacle. The sequence of production numbers remains unchanged but they have been given a fresh coat of creativity that makes the staging at the Nederlander virtually a new (and exhilarating) viewing experience.
“Cats” is very much an ensemble show but it has its stars, singer-dancers who impersonate felines of assorted human personalities—witty, sly, vaguely menacing, majestic, exuberant, pathetic, heroic. Lloyd Webber’s score primarily serves the choreographer. Itr produced only one hit, the emotional “Memory,” sung by Grizabella, the bedraggled out cast who sings the song of past glories and present heartbreak. Spoiler alert—Grisabella is the cat selected to ascend to the Heaviside Layer. Keri Rene Fuller’s passionate reverie on Grisabella’s life’s past glories performed near the end of the evening brought forth rafters-rattling approval from the audience, and as usual, choked me up.
The show gets off with a long viewer-grabbing number, a terrific song and dance piece that immediately tells the audience they are in for a memorable evening, so matter how many times they have seen the show. Some of the choreography rivals Olympic Games floor exercise routines in their skill set. The fresh choreography reaches far and wide. There are whiffs of Busby Berkeley, Jerome Robbins, classical ballet, a bit of Mick Jagger, Bob Fosse, rock ‘n’ roll. Seeing about two dozen hoofers going through their complex high-motor movements with such elan and drive is a dazzling audience experience.
For over two and a half hours (including one intermission), the spectator is treated to star turns by such distinctive cat personalities as the jaunty Rum Tum Tigger (McGee Maddox), the breezy team of Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer (Tony d’Alelio and Rose Iannaconne), the stately old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase), the hip Railroad Cat Shimbleshanks (Ethan Saviet), the show-stopping dancer the Magical Mister Mistoffeles (Tion Gaston), and, of course Grisabella. Add to the list Philip Deceus (Alonzo), Lexie Plath (Bombalina), Emily Jeanne Philips (Jennyanydots), Dan Hoy (Munkustrap), Timothy Gulan (Bustopher Jones), and Kaitlyn Davidson (Jellyorum), and you have a true all-star lineup.
The production is fortunate in playing the Nederlander with its large stage that turns the space into a huge environment. Up to to date technical facilities allow for displays of stunning lighting pageantry. There are multiple moments when the opulence of the production numbers brings to mind a Las Vegas pageant, without the vulgarity and excess. The performers make liberal use of the aisles, dashing through the audience, sometimes wearing light-flashing eyeglasses. Strings of multi-colored lights often blink above the audience. The Nederlander is a large theater and “Cats” is a large show but the production still maintains a sense of intimate connection with the viewer.
The touring production has a three-figure top ticket price, something of a commonplace in today’s touring musicals, but in “Cats” the customer should applaud every dollar spent to bring about such a splendor-drenched theatrical world. The magical lighting effects alone are worth the price of admission. Because the production is staying only a short time, all “Cats” fanciers, as well as “Cats” mockers, should find the time and money to take in this show. We probably will see revivals in the future. “Cats” is too artistically brilliant and commercially successful to lay fallow, in spite of daunting production demands. But it’s difficult to conceive of a production that sets the creative bar this high coming to Chicagoland any time soon.
‘Cats’ gets a rating of
“Cats” runs through August 4 at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph Street. Performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:230 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $110. Visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. July 2019
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