by Michael Bracken
So you think it’s lame for a bunch of fully grown humans in glitzy cat costumes to pussyfoot around on a Broadway stage? Join the club. But don’t let that stop you from checking out the revival of Cats that just opened at the Neil Simon Theatre, directed by Trevor Nunn.
Cats may not have much of a story, but it has some of the best dancing around. It also has an engagingly melodic score, courtesy of Andrew Lloyd Webber, crowned by the over-performed but still ravishing classic, “Memory.”
The ersatz plot goes something like this. Every year the Jellicle Ball is held, and all Jellicle cats attend. Toward the end of the ball, the patriarchal Old Deuteronomy (Quentin Earl Darrington) selects one Jellicle cat to be carried up to the Heaviside Layer and subsequently reincarnate. You would think there’d be some suspense generated as the audience wonders who will be chosen. But the only thing I found myself wondering was: What the hell is a Jellicle?
But who cares? Just let them keep on dancing. And they do. Andy Blankenbuehler, fresh from receiving a Tony Award for Hamilton, bases his choreography on Gillian Lynne’s work for the original production. The result is vibrant, athletic, and very much calculated to produce oohs and aahs. Which it does.
These cats know how to dance. They turn, they hoof, they float, they fly, and it’s all seemingly effortless. Just about all the dancing is ballet infused; there’s also plenty of jazz dance and hybrids of the two. There’s even a fantastic tap number, with, Eloise Kropp as Jennyanydots making magic with two of her paws.
Georgina Pazcoguin as Victoria is playing hooky from New York City Ballet to don a tail. She’s a knockout, particularly in the first act. Placed front and center, her all-white costume singles her out, in contrast to the mottled colors of the other cats. But she would stand out no matter what she was wearing. Her line is elegant, her carriage graceful and her execution crisp.
Webber is not known for subtlety, and Cats reflects his “more is more” ethic. Everything, including the choreography, is writ large. No dying swans in this extravaganza, thank you very much. In any other show the lack of subtlety would be a serious negative, but other shows don’t have six feet tabbies who like to walk on their hind legs.
The dancer who dominates Act II is Ricky Ubeda as Mistoffelees. His grands jetés are beyond grand; they’re jaw-dropping. The sheer joy he exudes as he soars above the stage is remarkable.
Ubeda radiates light, but he has help in that department: his tuxedo is equipped with tiny bulbs, of the Christmas tree variety, that go on and off on cue. Well, no one ever said Cats was afraid of being tacky. It shows its tacky side right from the start, when the house lights go down and pairs of illuminated day-glow green eyes seem to be everywhere.
The cats in Cats can sing as well as dance. British pop star Leona Lewis is Grizabella. She sings “Memory” in both the first and second acts, allowing her voice to grow in power with each verse. She has a wonderful instrument, but her grand finale fails to impress. Christopher Gurr as Asparagus, the theater cat, has memories of his own as he looks back on his long career in bittersweet reminiscence.
Cats, based on T.S.Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, opened on Broadway in 1982 after its triumph in London. It ran for 18 years. How does it hold up today? Just fine. Its finger might not be on the pulse of 2016, but neither was it on the pulse of 1982. Cats is an entertainment, made of song and dance, both of which it’s got covered in spades. You just have to look beyond the fur.
Open-ended run at the Neil Simon Theatre (250 West 52nd Street). http://www.catsthemusical.com/broadway/. 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission
Photos: Matthew Murphy