Cats—whether you’re talking about the household pet or the legendary Broadway musical—are polarizing. People either seem to love the deliberate aloofness of four-legged felines or wonder, “Why bother?”
Over the years, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats has become a parody of itself. (A Saturday Night Live commercial parody dating back to 1986 helped spawn the phrase, “I laughed, I cried, it was better than CATS.”) But one can’t deny the impact of a show that swept the 1983 Tony Awards with 10 nominations and 7 wins including Best Musical. With 7,485 performances, the original production still ranks as the fourth longest-running show of all time.
While cats are said to have nine lives, Broadway’s incarnation has at least two, with the first revival opening tonight at the Neil Simon Theatre. Directed, once again, by Trevor Nunn, a nimble ensemble takes to a raked stage littered with oversized garbage conceived by returning set and costume designer John Napier. For those who saw the original mega-hit, things look strikingly familiar—from the strings of brightly colored lights that adorn the junkyard set to that famous tire that ascends to the Heaviside Layer.
But where this CATS strays from its predecessor is in its choreography, brilliantly reimagined by Andy Blankenbuehler (Tony Award-winner for his work on Hamilton) and based on original choreography by Gillian Lynne. She expressed anger earlier this year for the changes to her work, stating, “It makes me feel like I’d like to murder. I have had a rotten time because of it. I did create the show, I really did.”
Yes, Ms. Lynne, you did. But you also provided a blueprint for Blankenbuehler to imbue CATS with a new sensibility; one riffed with syncopation and characterization.
Those familiar with the show will recognize the feline elegance of Victoria (Georgina Pazcoguin), the mischievous antics of Mongojerrie (Jess LeProtto) and Rumpleteazer (Shonica Goodin), and the magical athleticism of Mister Mistoffolees (Ricky Ubeda).
Demeter (Kim Fauré) and Bombalurina (Christine Cornish Smith) get a jolt of 21st century sexuality, while Jennyanydots (Eloise Kropp) tears a page out of 42nd Street with a tap number that rattles the rafters. Blankenbuehler earns his choreography credit in the playbill, but does so in a way that pays respectful homage to the original.
This production had a bit of a catfight when it came to casting the part of Grizabella, the Glamour Cat—a pivotal part that provides the musical’s emotional through-line. Nicole Scherzinger was scheduled to reprise her Olivier-nominated role on Broadway but pulled out last-minute to return to her gig as a judge on X Factor.
In an ironic twist, X Factor season three winner Leona Lewis landed the role, but her performance is a weak link in an otherwise stellar ensemble of triple-threats.
CATS has seen its share of Grizabellas, from West End original Elaine Paige to Tony Award-winner Betty Buckley and her longtime replacements Laurie Beechman and Liz Callaway. Each unique in their interpretation, Grizabella demands star power and a command of the stage (along with workhorse vocal chords that can belt an E-flat eight times a week). Though Lewis has the vocal chops, she’s markedly uncomfortable in comparison to her onstage litter.
In a bit of unintended irony (or a missed light cue in what is an otherwise visual feast from lighting designer Natasha Katz), Grizabella ascends to the Heaviside layer in upstage darkness, quickly forgotten as Old Deuteronomy (Quentin Earl Darrington) re-addresses the cats and ‘a new day has begun.”
Only time will tell is this CATS has staying power, but as we all know, cats tend to multiply, as do audience members craving an escape from the world’s woes. A dog’s life seems pretty easy, but these cats are having way more fun.
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
Want more CATS? Check out our exclusive interview with cast member Ahmad Simmons. Click here!