It’s odd that T.S. Eliot’s best-known work would end up being doggerel that he wrote about cats in order to amuse his godchildren. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is a collection of simplistic rhymes with made-up words telling humorous stories about poorly behaved felines. It became the basis for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation Cats. Incredible popularity ensued, making it the longest-running Broadway show ever, now in production as the closing entry in this year’s Music Circus season.
If you’re one of the three dozen or so people who haven’t seen Cats, well, you really ought to remedy that lack. To be sure, this is not the greatest musical of all time. Like most of Webber’s work, there’s a really great song right before intermission, to be reprised at the end of the show, and surrounded by songs that aren’t quite so musically interesting. In this case, the great song is “Memory,” and it’s beautifully sung by Jacquelyn Piro Donovan in her role as Grizabella, the “glamour” cat.
There’s not much story. One night a year, all the cats gather—they’re called “jellicle cats,” a nonsensical bit of language that once had meaning among Eliot’s family—to decide which of them gets to go to the “Heaviside Layer” and be reborn to a brand-new cat life. There’s not much suspense; by the time we meet Grizabella early in the first act, we know she’s the one most deserving of a new life.
The fun comes from the tales of each cat’s life and personality, from Jennyanydots, the “gumbie cat” who directs a cockroach tapdance, to Rum Tug Tugger, Elvis with a tail. It’s energetic and demanding, as the real fun comes from the cats’ dancing (and the pirate ship captained by Growltiger, although the Siamese pirates have some unpleasantly racist overtones that would have gone unnoticed in the Britain of Eliot’s day).
Music Circus provides an extra treat in the casting of Ken Page as Old Deuteronomy, the head kitty. Not only did Page originate the role on Broadway, he was also the voice of Oogie Boogie in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, and he’s a treat to listen to even in a relatively small role.
While the staging of Cats in the round required trimming some of the complex set, it’s more than made up for by the energetic dancing and special effects, particularly during the magical performance of Mr. Mistoffelees (Ryan Jackson).
Music Circus has opted for a slimmed-down version of the show, a wise decision that keeps the pace moving. The attention devoted to the dance numbers—particularly the aforementioned performance of Rum Tum Tugger (Kevin Loreque), as well as Skimbleshanks (the railway cat, played by Kurt Domoney) and McCavity, the crime-boss cat (Nathan Madden). As Gus the theater cat, Michael Brian Dunn gets a workout; he sheds his elderly persona to take on the role of Growltiger, which includes a love scene and a sword fight. What cat—or kid—won’t adore it?
It’s not the most brilliant play in the world, but it’s well-done, and even the most jaded among us will find plenty of magic as the cats dance and sing under the jellicle moon.