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Innocent Feline Fun

By Bence Olveczky

A musical based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Directed by Trevor Nunn

At The Shubert Theatre until October 19

Tickets $16-$66

When Andrew Lloyd Webber first played “Memory,” the Cats theme song, to his family, his father remarked that “it sounds like a million dollars.” In retrospect, that was a gigantic understatement.

Since its 1981 London premiere, Cats has raked in more than two billion dollars worldwide, broken all possible box office records, and changed the course of modern theater -- a pretty impressive feat for a musical about junkyard cats.

The touring production of this theatrical phenomenon, residing at the Shubert Theatre until October 19th, is a faithful copy of the original version I saw in London fifteen years ago. I liked it then and I like it still; it may have been a while since its conception, but Cats is still youthful, charming, and thoroughly enjoyable. And while it falls short of fulfilling the huge expectations created by its success, it comes close enough to warrant a trip to the theater.

Adapted from The Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a collection of children’s poems by T.S. Eliot, Cats lacks a real plot. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical simply sets Eliot’s cat poems to dance and music, providing pure entertainment without the pretense of being profound -- an admirable conceit for a genre that loves to pose its products as serious and intellectual.

Not to say that T.S. Eliot’s poems are shallow or without content. On the contrary, Eliot’s fictional cats are all intriguing characters and they come in a variety of flavors. There is the fat and fun Bustopher Jones, the mysterious and magical Mr. Mistoffelees, the criminally inclined Macavity, and, of course, the patriarch of the Jellicle clan, the warm and fuzzy Old Deuteronomy. But the character who gives this somewhat fragmented show its glue is Grizabella, “the glamour cat,” who returns to the junkyard with nothing but her fading memories.

Evidently, T.S. Eliot was more than a pet psychologist, and his Jellicle fantasy world is an allegorical description of our human society, with observations that are both witty and sharp. But don’t expect any great truths to be revealed: Cats is first and foremost a musical for children -- albeit children of any age.

Much of the show’s success is due to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score, contagious and chronic to the mind. The performers assembled for this touring production do a solid job in planting these catchy tunes in the audience’s awareness: the eminently hummable “Memory,” “Jellicle Song,” “Macavity,” and “Mr. Mistoffelees” all resonated in my head long after the show had ended.

But it’s hard for the actors to compete with the original soundtrack and the recently released video. Renee Veneziale is doing a fine job as Grizabella, but how can you do justice to “Memory,” a song that has been recorded by more than 170 artists? Julius Sermonia shares top honors with his truly magical rendering of the magical cat, Mr. Mistoffelees, and bass/baritone Craig Benham deserves praise for bringing a sweet granddaddy feel to Old Deuteronomy.

While Lloyd Webber’s music should get most of the credit, Cats would probably never have realized its commercial potential were it not for Trevor Nunn’s utterly professional direction. Nunn, who has headed both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre in London, is known for his Shakespearean approach to theatre. Populistic, but never vulgar, original without being outrageous, Nunn’s productions, (The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Les Miserables, Porgy and Bess) have brought sophisticated theater to the masses in a laudable way.

In the making of Cats, Webber was much helped by Gillian Lynne’s dazzling choreography and David Hersey and John Napier’s imaginative stage design. Together they transform the Shubert stage into a moonlit garbage-strewn alley inhabited by “allegorical cats, metaphorical cats, romantical cats, and pedantical cats,” who impress us with their feline acrobatics and musical skills.

But when Cats first premiered in London, it was the aggressive marketing strategy, not the show itself, that was considered revolutionary. For the first time in the history of theater, a Disney-like hyping machine went into full swing, putting the Cats logo (two yellow eyes with dancing irises) onto every merchandise item imaginable. It worked. Cats’ “meow” became a gigantic musical roar, and once it was established that “Jellicles can and Jellicles do” rake in a fortune, Cats spread like wildfire. The original production was successfully exported to Moscow and Mexico, Budapest and Buenos Aires, and the concept of the “pre-packaged mega-musical” was born.

Cats showed the Broadway producers the easy way to the bank, and they have been transfixed ever since. Today, the vast majority of the shows on Broadway consists of musicals, complete with all the necessary hype and trademarked souvenirs. For a musical based on the writings of an austere poet, that’s a pretty ironic legacy.