THEATER: LLOYD WEBBER’S ‘CATS’

By FRANK RICH
Published: October 8, 1982, Friday

THERE’S a reason why ”Cats,” the British musical which opened at the Winter Garden last night, is likely to lurk around Broadway for a long time – and it may not be the one you expect.

It’s not that this collection of anthropomorphic variety turns is a brilliant musical or that it powerfully stirs the emotions or that it has an idea in its head. Nor is the probable appeal of ”Cats” a function of the publicity that has accompanied the show’s every purr since it first stalked London 17 months ago. No, the reason why people will hunger to see ”Cats” is far more simple and primal than that: it’s a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theater and yet, these days, only rarely does. Whatever the other failings and excesses, even banalities, of ”Cats,” it believes in purely theatrical magic, and on that faith it unquestionably delivers.

THERE’S a reason why ”Cats,” the British musical which opened at the Winter Garden last night, is likely to lurk around Broadway for a long time – and it may not be the one you expect.

It’s not that this collection of anthropomorphic variety turns is a brilliant musical or that it powerfully stirs the emotions or that it has an idea in its head. Nor is the probable appeal of ”Cats” a function of the publicity that has accompanied the show’s every purr since it first stalked London 17 months ago. No, the reason why people will hunger to see ”Cats” is far more simple and primal than that: it’s a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theater and yet, these days, only rarely does. Whatever the other failings and excesses, even banalities, of ”Cats,” it believes in purely theatrical magic, and on that faith it unquestionably delivers.

The principal conjurers of the show’s spell are the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, the director Trevor Nunn and the designer John Napier. Their source material is T.S. Eliot’s one volume of light verse, ”Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” If the spirit of the Eliot poems is highly reminiscent of Edward Lear, the playful spirit of ”Cats” is Lewis Carroll, refracted through showbiz. Mr. Nunn and Mr. Napier in particular are determined to take us to a topsy-turvy foreign universe from the moment we enter the theater, and they are often more extravagantly successful at that here than they were in the West End ”Cats” or in their collaboration on ”Nicholas Nickleby.”

Certainly the Winter Garden is unrecognizable to those who knew it when. To transform this house into a huge nocturnal junkyard for Eliot’s flighty jellicle cats, Mr. Napier has obliterated the proscenium arch, lowered the ceiling and stage floor and filled every cranny of the place with a Red Grooms-esque collage of outsized rubbish (from old Red Seal records to squeezed-out toothpaste tubes) as seen from a cat’s eye perspective. Well before the lights go down, one feels as if one has entered a mysterious spaceship on a journey through the stars to a cloud-streaked moon. And once the show begins in earnest, Mr. Napier keeps his Disneyland set popping until finally he and his equally gifted lighting designer, David Hersey, seem to take us through both the roof and back wall of the theater into an infinity beyond.

The cast completes the illusion. Luxuriantly outfitted in whiskers, electronically glowing eyes, mask-like makeup and every variety of feline costume – all designed by Mr. Napier as well – a top-notch troupe of American singer-dancers quickly sends its fur flying in dozens of distinctive ways. It’s the highest achievement of Mr. Nunn and his associate director-choreographer, Gillian Lynne, that they use movement to give each cat its own personality even as they knit the entire company into a cohesive animal kingdom. (At other, less exalted times, Mr. Nunn shamelessly recycles ”Nickleby” business, as when he has the cast construct a train – last time it was a coach – out of found objects.)

The songs – and ”Cats” is all songs – give each cat his or her voice. If there is a point to Eliot’s catcycle, it is simply that ”cats are much like you and me.” As his verses (here sometimes garbled by amplification) personify all manner of cat, so do the tuneful melodies to which Mr. Lloyd Webber has set them. The songs are often pastiche, but cleverly and appropriately so, and, as always with this composer, they have been orchestrated to maximum effect. Among many others, the eclectic musical sources include swing (for the busy Gumbie cat), rock (the insolent Rum Tum Tugger), Richard Rodgers-style Orientalism (a pack of Siamese) and Henry Mancini’s detective-movie themes (Macavity, the Napoleon of crime).

But while the songs are usually sweet and well sung, ”Cats” as a whole sometimes curls up and takes a catnap, particularly in Act I. The stasis is not attributable to the music or the energetic cast, but to the entire show’s lack of spine. While a musical isn’t obligated to tell a story, it must have another form of propulsion (usually dance) if it chooses to do without one. As it happens, ”Cats” does vaguely attempt a story, and it also aspires to become the first British dance musical in the Broadway tradition. In neither effort does it succeed.

If you blink, you’ll miss the plot, which was inspired by some unpublished Eliot material. At the beginning the deity-cat, Old Deuteronomy (an owlishly ethereal Ken Page), announces that one cat will be selected by night’s end to go to cat heaven -”the heaviside layer” – and be reborn. Sure enough, the only obvious candidate for redemption is chosen at the climax, and while the audience goes wild when the lucky winner finally ascends, it’s because of Mr. Napier’s dazzling ”Close Encounters” spaceship, not because we care about the outcome of the whodunit or about the accompanying comic-book spiritualism.

As for Miss Lynne’s profuse choreography, its quantity and exuberance do not add up to quality. Though all the cat clawings and slitherings are wonderfully conceived and executed, such gestures sit on top of a repetitive array of jazz and ballet cliches, rhythmically punctuated by somersaults and leaps.

It’s impossible not to notice the draggy passages in a long number like ”The Jellicle Ball,” or the missed opportunities elsewhere. To a tinkling new music-hall melody that Mr. Lloyd Webber has written for Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, Miss Lynne provides only standard strutting. The stealthy Macavity number looks like shopworn Bob Fosse, and the battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles in Act I could be an Ice Capades reject. For the conjuring cat, Mr. Mistoffolees, Miss Lynne’s acrobatics never match the superhuman promise of either the lyrics or the outstanding soloist, Timothy Scott.

It’s fortunate for ”Cats” that Miss Lynne is often carried by the production design and, especially, by her New York cast. At the risk of neglecting a few worthy names, let me single out such additional kitties as Anna McNeely’s jolly Jennyanydots, Donna King’s sinuous Bombalurina, Bonnie Simmons’s tart Griddlebone, Reed Jones’s railroad-crazed Skimbleshanks and Harry Groener’s plaintive Munkustrap. Aside from the dubious intermingling of British and American accents – which is not justified by the uniformly English references in the lyrics – the only real flaw in this large company is Terrence V. Mann’s Rum Tum Tugger, who tries to imitate Mick Jagger’s outlaw sexuality and misses by a wide mark.

By virtue of their songs, as well as their talent, there are two other performers who lend ”Cats” the emotional pull it otherwise lacks. Stephen Hanan, singing Gus the Theater Cat to the show’s most lilting melody, is a quivering bundle of nostalgia and dormant hamminess who touchingly springs back to life in an elaborate flashback sequence. (He also contributes a jolly cat about town, Bustopher Jones, earlier on.) To Betty Buckley falls the role of Grizabella the Glamour Cat and the task of singing ”Memory,” the Puccini-scented ballad whose lyrics were devised by Mr. Nunn from great noncat Eliot poems, notably ”Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” Not only does Miss Buckley’s coursing delivery rattle the rafters, but in her ratty, prostitute-like furs and mane she is a poignant figure of down-and-out catwomanhood.

One wishes that ”Cats” always had so much feeling to go with its most inventive stagecraft. One wishes, too, that we weren’t sporadically jolted from Eliot’s otherworldly catland to the vulgar precincts of the videogame arcade by the overdone lightning flashes and by the mezzanine-level television monitors that broadcast the image of the offstage orchestra conductor (the excellent Stanley Lebowsky). But maybe it’s asking too much that this ambitious show lift the audience – or, for that matter, the modern musical – up to the sublime heaviside layer. What ”Cats” does do is take us into a theater overflowing with wondrous spectacle – and that’s an enchanting place to be.

Feline Voices CATS, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber; based on ”Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot; directed by Trevor Nunn; orchestrations by David Cullen and Mr. Lloyd Webber; production musical director, Stanley Lebowsky; musical director, Rene Wiegert; sound design by Martin Levan; lighting design by David Hersey; designed by John Napier; associate director and choreographer, Gillian Lynne; executive producers, R. Tyler Gatchell Jr. and Peter Neufeld. Presented by Cameron Mackintosh, The Really Useful Company Ltd., David Geffen and the Shubert Organization. Alonzo ………………………Hector Jaime Mercado Bustopher Jones, Asparagus and Growltiger Stephen Hanan Bombalurina …………………………..Donna King Carbucketty ………………………..Steven Gelfer Cassandra ………………………….Rene Ceballos Coricopat and Mungojerrie ……………Rene Clemente Demeter …………………………….Wendy Edmead Etcetera and Rumpleteazer …………Christine Langer Grizabella …………………………Betty Buckley Jellylorum and Griddlebone ………….Bonnie Simmons Jennyanydots ……………………….Anna McNeeley Mistoffolees ……………………….Timothy Scott Munkustrap …………………………Harry Groener Old Deuteronomy …………………………Ken Page Plato, Macavity and Rumpus Cat …………Kenneth Ard Pouncival ………………………..Herman W. Sebek Rum Tum Tugger …………………..Terrence V. Mann Sillabub …………………………Whitney Kershaw Skimbleshanks …………………………Reed Jones Tantomile ………………………..Janet L. Hubert Tumblebrutus ………………………Robert Hoshour Victoria …………………………Cynthia Onrubia Cat Chorus Walter Charles, Susan Powers, Carol Richards and Joel Robertson.

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