CATS at the Fisher Theatre
CATS—it’s a musical about cats. Singing, dancing, pouncing, prancing cats. The idea in itself sounds ludicrous (and, truth be told, it kind of is ludicrous), but for 28 years Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony-award-winning CATS has delighted audiences, parents and children alike, with its whimsical look at the lives of Jellicle cats and their annual Jellicle ball. In fact, CATS is the longest-running musical in the history of British theatre since its 1981 opening; after invading Broadway in 1982, it became the longest-running musical on Broadway and held that record for six years until it was bested by another Webber creation, The Phantom of the Opera.
The accomplishment is impressive, considering that the story for CATS is culled entirely from the poems of T.S. Eliot whose work, in terms of mainstream accessibility, tends to be a bit obtuse. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) provided the majority of content, and most of the poems were set to music in their original published form. Others had an occasional tweak to tense or pronoun, eight lines were added to “The Song of the Jellicles,” some lyrics were taken from unpublished works, and “Memory” (probably the most famous and recognizable song from a musical ever) was taken from and inspired by “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.”
Enter the world of the Jellicle cats, where each cat has three different names and their “true” names are things like Jennyanydots, Old Deuteronomy, Bombalurina, and Munkustrap. (The cast is huge and they’re all dressed like cats—it can be hard to keep them straight but, luckily, it’s not all that necessary to do so.)
There really isn’t a storyline, per se…the performance more or less runs as a series of vignettes (separated into songs) that add up to an overall image. What HAPPENS is the cats get together for their annual ball and await the arrival of their patriarch to choose which among them gets to be “reborn” into another cat life (I think I’m already stating the obvious when I say that it is the tattered and taunted Grizabella, she who sings the infamous “Memory,” who receives this honor). The rest is just a lot of singing and acrobatics.
Part of it feels like a fantastical romp through a land of childhood make-believe; another part of it feels like a big gay disco rock opera, with all the spandex and fur and feathered hair and pelvic thrusts (particularly from the Rum Tum Tugger, who looks like one of the Bee Gees as seen through an acid trip). But for the most part, it’s fun and frivolous, and however incomprehensible the plot and lyrics might be it more than makes up for in stellar performances by an extremely talented touring cast.
This cast of cats is full of seasoned vets, many of them having been with the CATS National Touring Company (the only production in North America sanctioned by Andrew Lloyd Webber) for several years. They prowl amongst the audience, crawl across the stage, and sing with great gusto while performing feats of physical prowess. What makes CATS so popular is not its inaccessible literary references, but in its visual spectacle. The staging is set full of platforms and cubbies for the cats to curl up in and disappear inside; they leap and backflip and cartwheel across the stage. The actors display all the energy of cats at play, and that’s what makes it so very fun.
But the true moment of grandeur, the one the audience waits for with anxious anticipation, is when the grisled Grizabella (here played by Anastasia Lange) sings her mournful rendition of “Memory” solo, belting out the final chords with power and triumph, her voice without hesitation. Love it or hate it, there is no denying that this song packs quite an emotional wallop…even if you’re not fully sure why.