NEW YORK – After a 16-year hiatus, “Cats,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s now and forever musical, is back on Broadway and at the Neil Simon Theater on West 52nd Street. The revival is a fairly accurate replica of the original that played 7,485 performances, between 1982 and 2000, and was one of Broadway’s longest-running hits until another of Webber’s musicals, “The Phantom of the Opera,” took its place.
“Phantom” is still running a few blocks away at the Majestic Theater on 44th Street.
Today, some folks might find “Cats” a little retro. Some people felt that way back in ’82, too. But at a recent Sunday matinee, a packed audience found it to be a delightful theatrical outing. Many theatergoers had been painted with cat makeup – a concession stand for such things resides in front of the theater – and many hummed along with the familiar songs as they were being sung on stage. At intermission, they lined up to go on stage to take selfies with the oldest cat, the ancient Deuteronomy (Quentin Earl Darrington). It all was a happening of sorts, as my generation might say.
Cats” is a musical adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s 1939 slim poetic book on cats, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. What drew Mr. Webber to the subject matter was his childhood affection for cats. Mr. Eliot also loved cats, and his friends often called him “Possum.”
English director Trevor Nunn was the original stager of “Cats,” and his hand was impeccably in charge of this revival. The scenic effects are still by John Napier, who retained the musical’s artful, colorful London junkyard that surrounds the audience throughout the theater. Mr. Napier is also the designer of the players’ feline garb and the cat makeup, though the makeup development was done by Nancy Powell. The 700 lighting cues were created by Natasha Katz’s designing eyes. Spectacles are not easy to put together.
Mr. Webber’s score is part pastiche, with some music hall and theater ditties, plus the popular hit “Memory” song, which a lot of people think has more than an echo of Puccini in it. Of course, “Memory” has probably made more money that Puccini’s entire opera oeuvre.
What keeps the show moving are the “Cats” ensemble players, who dance, sing, act and spread magic in their simple cat humanity. Their gentle, cat-like movements and the aptness, grace and ebullient humor in their scampering choreography turn the experience into a thing of delight. Gillian Lynne’s original musical staging and dances were re-created by Andy Blankenbuehler, who won a Tony for choreography for the very popular “Hamilton.”
The soft spot in “Cats” has always been the fact that great musicals need great books; “Cats” has everything except that. Since Mr. Webber and Mr. Nunn were dealing with a free-flowing book of T. S. Eliot’s poetry, they constructed their show around a Jellicle Ball with old Deuteronomy, lord of this Cat Land, choosing one unhappy cat to send on a journey to the “Heavenside Layer” to be reincarnated into something better. The question of “Cats” is: Who will it be? This is the slender drama that “Cats’” plot rests on.
But before all of that happens, many of the cats tell us about their lives in a vaudeville revue-like way. We meet the old Gumbie (Eloise Kropp) cat, who lives with the mice and teaches them music and crocheting and shows them some tap dancing. Rum Tum Tugger (Tyler Hanes) is the wild cat. High-hat Bustopher Jones, the St. James Cat, looks down his nose at and nods or bows to fellow cats. Gus (Christopher Gurr), the theater cat, worked with legendary British actors and talks of the gallery cat-calls he received for his performances. Skimbleshanks (Jeremy Davis) the railroad cat, shows us the train he guarded. The deeds of the evil Macavity, (Daniel Gaymon) never change. The Great Mister Mistoffelees (Ricky Ubeda), is the magician cat who wows us with his late Act Two solo dance. And who could forget Victoria (Georgina Pazcoguin), the ballerina cat, dressed all in white, who shows us her exquisite dancing throughout the show? Ms. Pazcoguin is on leave from the New York City ballet.
Old Deuteronomy, the cat who lived “many lives” is famous in proverbs and rhymes, and it is he who counts at the Jellicle Ball. Grisabella (Leona Lewis), the once-glamorous cat who is the heroine of the show and wins the Jellicle Ball, gets to sing “Memory.” Here, Ms. Lewis, a British pop singer, has been miscast. As a singer, she is fine; there is not a note she can’t hit, but she can’t carry off the dramatics. Her voice delivers, but not the character, not the way Elaine Page did in London nor the way Betty Buckley did in the role in New York for which she won a Tony. But the audience didn’t seem to care; they seemed just to be glad to hear “Memory” sung well.
Cats” is still a fun, big Broadway experience, a unique evening that the whole family can enjoy. So far, the box office would say it still has legs. The cats probably would say with a purr that it’s a solid hit. Again.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.