Having the distinction of being the second longest-running show in Broadway history, CATS—that renowned Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that purred its way to a Tony win for Best Musical in 1982—is certainly one of those shows almost everyone and their mother has seen at least once, if not multiple times. It is also most notably known for being the musical that begat the ubiquitous musical theater staple "Memory," with lyrics written by the show's original London and Broadway director Trevor Nunn (he also co-wrote the book with Webber and Gillian Lynne). But more than that, CATS is also a musical wholly representative of the era that gave birth to it, the kind of critique-proof show that is shrewdly designed as an entertainment juggernaut performance piece where expressive, rousing dances and hook-laden, multi-genre music dazzle the audience to enthusiastic cheers and repeat viewings. Just don't expect to walk away from it with any sort of stirring life lessons or something much deeper... Not that there's anything wrong with honest-to-goodness showmanship, of course.
That is exactly what audiences have come to expect from this fantasy-world musical, now enjoying a lively, entertaining, Broadway-caliber revival for Musical Theatre West in Long Beach through February 27 at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts. Based mostly on passages from T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats from 1939, CATS presents a two-act musical cavalcade of the different felines that belong to the tribe of Jellicle cats, and how each is uniquely named versus ordinary cats.
Here in the middle of an expansive junkyard where the Jellicle cats reside, the furry creatures are preparing for their celebratory Jellicle ball, an event which also marks the night when Old Deuteronomy—the cats' wise tribe leader and patriarch—will vet each cat and choose one of them to be "reborn" with a renewed life on the Heavyside Layer. If you're scratching your head wondering, what the eff is going on... you need not worry. The show isn't so much focused on what is going on but, rather... which cat do we get to meet next?
And one by one, we are introduced to the members of this unique tribe, each with their own musical anthem that highlights their personalities and their identifiable traits. Munkustrap (Robert Pieranunzi), the show's narrator and Deuteronomy's second-in-command, introduces roly-poly tabby cat Jennyanydots (Colette Peters). Next comes Rum Tum Tugger (Danny Gurwin), the tribe's outspoken and defiantly fickle cat, followed by Grizabella (Kelli Provart), a shaky, older grey cat that everyone shuns. This cat has really been through a lot, hasn't she? She hobbles away, dejected.
Next in line: elitist, fat cat Bustopher Jones (Eddie Korbich), followed by twin petty thieves Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer (Jacob Haren and Carly Wielstein, respectively). Soon Old Deuteronomy (here played by the beautifully-voiced Clent Bowers) arrives and we are treated to an ensemble-sung ode to the large cat that "has lived many lives." Before Act 1 ends, Grizabella returns disheveled, a bit peeved that she's been forced to seclude herself away from the joyous celebration. She gives a brief teaser for her triumphant full version of "Memory."
Act 2 opens with more cat introductions: there's Old Gus, The Theater Cat (Korbich again), who regales the tribe (and the audience) with the tale of his infamous acting past, including his role as pirate Growltiger, the Terror of the Thames. Next up we meet Skimbleshanks (Daniel Dawson), the Railway Cat. Soon we are introduced to the evil, "Most Wanted" cat, Macavity (Chris Holly), who throughout the show has been sort of haunting the celebration. A diabolical cat, the others describe him as a "master criminal." Unbeknownst to the tribe, he and his cronies have cat-napped Deuteronomy, then enters the junkyard disguised as their leader. Fortunately, Demeter (Jenn Aédo)—who like Bombalurina (Terra C. MacLeod) share a mysterious past with the villain—outs the evil cat and Munkustrap and Alonzo (Jamie Joseph) manage to scare him away. But, oh, no! Where's Old Deuteronomy? Luckily, the tribe has Mr. Mistoffelees (the very agile Joseph Corella), whose unique magical powers bring back their cult—er, I mean tribe—leader.
As a sign of fairness, Old Deuteronomy urges the cats to listen to the plea of Grizabella, at which point, the once "Glamour" cat belts her way through the show's divalicious 11 o'clock anthem "Memory." With those vocals, how can they possibly keep shunning the old girl?
CATS certainly presents an eccentric, albeit rousing conceit: each song is really a vignette of its own, showcasing one (or a few) cats at a time, using Eliot's poetry accompanied by Webber's genre-hopping grandiose musicality. While some may sit impatiently in the audience wondering, "okay, when is someone finally going to sing "Memory?" rest assured that the journey to the song is quite the scenic route.
This, unlike your "normal" book musicals, is definitively a dancer's musical, where huge chunks of showtime are dedicated to elaborate, wonderfully choreographed sequences that enchant its audience. CATS, for all intents and purposes, is a dance-heavy, dance-centric show that seems to have sprung from an era where plot and story are secondary to presenting dazzling entertainment. In the end, the happy audience gets an all-singing, all-dancing spectacular that feeds the senses much more enthusiastically than it feeds the soul. It's a fantasy from start to finish and does so with an incredibly lyrical succession of flourishes.