Saturday, August 6, 2016

Reliving the Memory: Cats at the Neil Simon Theatre

The original 1982 production of Cats was a game-changer for the Broadway musical. It was one of the first mega-hits of New York theatre, and quickly became the must-see musical. The run lasted nearly 18 years, and held the title of Longest Running Broadway Musical for some time, and you know what? With good reason. The concept was simple, the intent was sweet. Based on TS Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” which introduces an array of feline characters, each with their own unique attributes. Add a show-stopping score from Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, memorable choreography by Gillian Lynne, and lauded direction from Trevor Nunn, and you’ve got a recipe for a hit.  It was a musical that appealed to a wide audience: seasoned theatergoers and new young audiences alike flocked to the Winter Garden to see Cats. It was a production audiences would see multiple times, which until then was not common. After winning 7 Tonys and giving 7485 performances, it became a beloved, iconic piece of musical theatre.

& now, its back!

When I was 8 years old, my mother took me to the Winter Garden for my first Broadway musical. That performance of Cats has stayed with me to this day. The cats coming into the audience and one of them rubbing its head on my knee.  Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer’s double-cartwheel. The cats using their findings in the junkyard to dress up as dogs. Victoria, the white cat’s solo that I tried to recreate in my living room for months after seeing the musical.  So when it was announced Cats was making its return to Broadway, I pounced (no pun intended).  Cats was responsible for my falling in love with theatre. I had to relive the ‘Memory’ (pun absolutely intended). 

The new Broadway production of Cats now lives in the Neil Simon Theatre, once again under the direction of Trevor Nunn, with new choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, holding true to the original work by Gillian Lynne. The junkyard set was just as I remembered it, now stretching throughout the theater into the mezzanine. When the overture began and the glowing green eyes started appearing in the aisles, an eruption of applause began, and I realized I was not the only one reliving the beloved theatre experience of The Jellicle Ball. 

Broadway revivals will commonly reimagine the original production, with new staging or concepts, like when the West End run of Cats last year updated Rum Tum Tugger from the Elvis-esque character to a hip-hop star; too much criticism from the purists. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find Nunn kept this production nearly identical to his original (giving us back the well Rum Tum Tugger we know and love). A smart move by the director, as there are so many iconic moments and beloved nuances. 

Nunn’s changes are few but subtle, and they work well. He simply enhanced the theatrical experience by utilizing the advancements in theatrical technology, showcasing the incredible dancers of our generation, more props, more bells, more whistles. 

Before, “Bustopher Jones: the Cat About Town” was a throwaway number about a fat cat. Now we get to see the fat cat (played by Christopher Gurr) dining in restaurants and clubs, which is much more interesting to watch. The deletion of the arguably racist song “Growltiger’s Last Stand,” is another smart move by Nunn, who now utilizes “The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles” as Gus the Theatre Cat’s (once again Gurr) return to the stage. Even then, there still is a questionable line from Gus, which Jellicle right-hand cat Munkustrap (Andy Huntington Jones) plays off in a very similar fashion to the way you say “Don’t mind grandma, she’s from a different time.”  Production numbers that were always regarded as show-stoppers, like “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer” or “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” have somehow been made more impressive with Blankenbuehler’s new choreography. I got my fix of the double cartwheel, but Mungojerrie (Jess LeProtto, of Newsies and So You Think You Can Dance fame), and Rumpelteazer (Shonica Gooden, fresh from mega-smash Hamilton) showed off so many more impressive tricks, I was reminded why that was always my favorite scene.  So You Think You Can Dance winner Ricky Ubeda is given the opportunity to show his incredible range as a dancer as Mister Mistoffelees, in a number that includes several dance styles, more magic tricks, and a noteworthy update to the light-up jacket the character has always been known for. 

British pop singer Leona Lewis makes her Broadway debut as Grizabella the Glamour Cat, the role which made Betty Buckley famous and introduced the world to probably the most well-known Broadway ballad of all time, “Memory.” It seems an odd choice to have the old, washed up cat played by someone so young and beautiful, and Lewis at times seems a little too well put together to be a cat fallen from her prime. It sometimes shows that Lewis is not a “theatre performer” in the way she moves onstage, but it works for the character, who supposed to be out of touch with the other cats. Lewis absolutely delivers with her vocal abilities, getting a roar of applause during that iconic key-change in “Memory.”  What at first seemed like an odd casting choice now made sense.  

I went into Cats looking to be reminded of fond memories, and I was. I was reconnected with familiar characters and scenery that brought back the same feeling I had seeing the show at age 8 with my mother. And then, in the seat in front of me, I spotted a young girl around age 8 with her mother, and every time a cat would come up and interact with her, she would squeal with delight. And then it made sense as to why Cats, a musical that is literally about a group of singing and dancing cats, has become so adored by audiences  now for 34 years; because there is a certain magic to it that you can’t help but enjoy yourself. This revival reminds old fans why they love it, and allows new fans fall in love with live musical theatre.  

                Cats opened at the Neil Simon Theatre on July 31, 2016
Review By: Kelcie Kosberg
Photos By: Christophe Ena

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