Cats – Neil Simon Theatre, New York

Kim_Fauré_as_Demeter_and_Christine_Cornish_Smith_as_Bombalurina_and_Company_in_CATS_on_Broadway_Photo_by_Matthew_Murphy

Kim Fauré and Christine Cornish Smith and company in Cats at the Neil Simon Theatre, New York. Pictures: Matthew Murphy

Cats continues at the Neil Simon Theatre, New York.

Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Who or what is responsible for the explosive power that threatens to blow the roof off Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre, where the new production of Cats, the Andrew Lloyd Webber’s cash-spouting bonanza, has just opened?

Is it a refocused vision of director Trevor Nunn, one of the show’s original creators? Is it the inspiration of choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, basing his work on that of the original choreographer Gillian Lynne? Is it the dedication of music director Kristen Blodgette, making Lloyd Webber’s score sound more lustrous than ever? Or is it the know-how of Tara Rubin Casting, the New York casting firm that has helped assemble one of the most talented group of dancing/singing performers – if not the most talented – currently on the New York stage?

I certainly can’t say for sure, but I would suspect that all of that and more had a hand in creating this spectacle that entrances from start to finish. I’m not a student of the history of the various revisions that have been filtered through Cats since its premiere opening night in London in 1981. I can say that the current staging doesn’t seem to vary much in format from what I remember seeing at the show’s first mounting on Broadway. That first Broadway mounting ran from 1982 to 2000. The rubbish-filled set stretching into the audience and the outlandish, sometimes freaky costumes designed by John Napier, another member of the original creative team, again evoke a fairy tale land gone askew.

But somehow I was caught up in the antics of these performers pretending to be cats as if I were seeing the whole thing for the first time. Lloyd Webber’s score, particularly its anchor song, ‘Memory’, has taken its lumps through the years.

However, the range of the composer’s music is beautifully demonstrated, both in its wealth of melody and how it melds with the poetry of TS Eliot. Things are sometimes playful, as in the rollicking ‘The Invitation to the Jellicle Ball’ or ‘Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat’, sometimes solemn as in ‘The Moments of Happiness’.

Leona_Lewis_as_Grizabella_in_CATS_on_Broadway_--_Photo_by_Matthew_Murphy

Leona Lewis in Cats on Broadway

The barely visible plotline – who will Old Deuteronomy name as this year’s cat to be gifted with a new life – hardly has you on the edge of your seat. It doesn’t matter, though, as you keep being astounded by, and falling in love with, the parade of felines brought centrestage to do their stuff.

Just to name a few of the performers who embody them, there are Jess LeProtto as Mungojerrie and Shonica Gooden as Rumpleteazer negotiating Olympics-worthy gymnastics as they sing of their mischievous ways; Tyler Hanes gyrating and strutting as the rock-star-styled Rum Tum Tugger; Kim Fauré and Christine Cornish Smith channeling authentic jazz babies as Demeter and Bombalurina warning us about Macavity the Mystery Cat; and Christopher Gurr, portraying Gus the Theatre Cat, shamlelessly and successfully begging our sympathies with tales of long-gone and questionable triumphs on stage.

And the list goes on. Quentin Earl Darrington endows Old Deuteronomy with kindly authority; Andy Huntington Jones makes Munkustrap a trustworthy guy, occasionally acting as a tour guide through this litter of Jellicles; Jeremy Davis is deliciously uber-perky as Skimbleshanks; and Ricky Ubeda’s buoyant athleticism is totally wondrous as a bouncing, bounding Magical Mister Mistoffelees.

Then, there are those many moments when the whole or at least a lot of the company explodes into the sizzling Blankenbuehler/Lynne choreography, often thrillingly punctuated by Natasha Katz’s synchronised light cues. These are moments guaranteed to leave you simply breathless.

The ostensible headliner in the cast is the British vocal star Leona Lewis, playing – as the marquee name in Cats usually does – Grizabella, the long-faded glamour cat. Even with her ragged costume and streaky make-up, Lewis’ youthful and lovely features rob the role of some of its pathos. Nevertheless, she impresses with her quiet rendering of ‘Memory’ in Act I, only to turn the song into a memorably blood-chilling cry of despair in the Act II reprise.

In the overview, though, it’s the entire 40-member cast plus orchestra and crew, all of them seemingly giving their all, who make sure that this new production of Cats is, as a Jellicle from the 1920s might declare, absolutely the cat’s pajamas.

Ron Cohen

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