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Cats

A melodious, witty and—most shocking—worthwhile, stylish entertainment.

The Company of “Cats” (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

The Company of “Cats” (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

My foggy memories of the original production of Cats aren’t fond ones.  It all seemed so silly, superficial and overhyped.  So it was an extraordinary surprise that the Cats revival at the Neil Simon Theatre turned out to be a melodious, witty and—most shocking!—worthwhile, stylish entertainment.

Maybe it’s because the Neil Simon is a more intimate house than the Winter Garden, this time around I was able to listen more closely to the lyrics, mostly by T.S. Eliot—full of historical references and social commentaries—and hear the subtleties of the wide-ranging score of Andrew Lloyd Webber with its sophisticated chord changes and command of many genres (music hall, operetta, opera and pop).  I completely understood Gillian Lynne’s choreographic contribution, a muscular combination of ballet, tap and acrobatics (reanimated by Andy Blankenbuehler) as equally illuminating and important as the other creative elements, if not the backbone of Cats.

There is no storyline to Cats.  It’s framed as a nocturnal convergence of felines, kind of a convention, to determine who will be sent to the Heaviside Layer where they will be given a new life.  This decision is to be made by Old Deuteronomy (a big-voiced, commanding Quentin Earl Darrington) for whom the valiant, picturesque cast of cat characters parade their narratives, via Eliot’s literate and fanciful poetry.

Leona Lewis as Grizabella in “Cats” (Photo credit: Mathew Murphy)

Leona Lewis as Grizabella in “Cats” (Photo credit: Mathew Murphy)

They meet in John Napier’s imaginative environmental alleyway set that flows out into the audience, helped by the projections designed by Brad Peterson, the atmospheric new lighting by Natasha Katz and the spectacular, highly individualized and detailed costumes by Mr. Napier.  The set is brilliantly built to “cat scale,” all the everyday refuse—cans, tires, signs, household objects—massively oversized as cats would see them.

The list of cats who parade before Deuteronomy include: Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer (a perfectly matched tap dance duo, Jess LeProtto and Shonica Gooden) who blithely tell their tale of mischief; Rum Tum Tugger (Tyler Hanes giving a tongue-in-cheek take on Mick Jagger); the stylish criminal, Macavity (Daniel Gaymon, wonderfully slinky); the ebullient, whirling Mistoffelees played by the adorable Ricky Ubeda; chubby Bustopher Jones.

The debonair resident of posh St. James, and Gus, the theatre cat, are both played with finesse by Christopher Gurr, whose “Gus the Theatre Cat” who nearly steals the show away from the more famous “Memory,” here sung by an underwhelming, but pretty-voiced Leona Lewis, the British three-time Grammy Award nominee, as the bedraggled, superannuated beauty, Grizabella.  Mr. Gurr’s wistful singing and great acting movingly communicate his tale of theatrical greatness and all the actors he had known (most completely forgotten by contemporary audiences).

Andy Huntington Jones as Munkustrap and Company in “Cats” (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Andy Huntington Jones as Munkustrap and Company in “Cats” (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

(To be absolutely accurate and fair to the animal kingdom, it has to be stated that other species of animals, dogs, mice and rats, do make appearances in humorous skits.)

The opening numbers, the jingle-like “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” and the solemn “The Naming of Cats” set the mood, even if they were disturbingly difficult to forget!  Bringing the show to a powerful close was the summing up song, “The Ad-dressing of Cats” and the Finale, led by Old Deuteronomy.

For most, after the quiet passion of “Memory,” which is sung several times, the climax of the show is “The Journey to the Heaviside Layer” which involves some spectacular stage effects, giving the audience its money’s worth.

Trevor Nunn re-created his direction with aplomb, while keeping the show fresh and energetic.

Cats (through December 30, 2017)

Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 877-250-2929 or visit http://www.TicketMaster.com

For more information, visit http://www.CatsBroadway.com

Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (229 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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