Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
I had not seen Cats again since, steering clear of the recent film adaptation after reading its death-sentence reviews. But this week, as the touring production is in Minneapolis, I was back at Cats thirty-six years after my first encounter, and do you know what? I loved it.
The difference? Perhaps the fact that since 1991 we have continuously had one or more cats living in our home–I would say "as pets," though I suspect the cats have not seen it that way. So, I am now a confirmed cat lover, and certainly it is easier to appreciate the antics of the hugely talented, hardworking singer-dancer-actors on stage with that frame of reference. Another difference is that in 1986 I was at a stage in personal development where I demanded that art and entertainment carry a deep meaning, present a political perspective, offer a critique of society, or explore the dark crevices of the human psyche. A show that did nothing more than gloriously entertain ... why bother? Thirty-six years of living through history can give one a different perspective, and while I still welcome and seek out weightier fare, I have learned to greatly value entertainments that are happy to be just that–entertaining. And, wow, Cats is one hell of an entertaining show.
Cats is the inspired creation of Andrew Lloyd Webber that followed the back-to-back smash success of his (and Tim Rice's) Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita on record album, on stage in London, and on Broadway.
Lloyd Webber took a collection of whimsical poems by T.S. Eliot (a cat fancier) called "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," containing odes to a wide variety of cats. Eliot gave each a distinct name and persona, referring to them collectively as Jellicle Cats. With permission from Valerie Eliot, widow of the poet (who died in 2012), Lloyd Webber conceived to bring these cats together on the night of the annual Jellicle Ball when each year, their leader Old Deuteronomy selects one among the Jellicle Cats to be lifted up to the Heaviside Layer, and from there be reborn into a new life on Earth. Lloyd Webber added numerous minor characters and one of great significance, Grizabella. Grizabella was once a glamorous cat, but she has lived through terrible times, leaving her in tatters with nothing but her "Memories," the prompt for the song of that name, the show's big eleven o'clock number, and the best known of Cats numerous songs. Unlike most of the other songs, "Memories" draws its highly emotional lyrics from Eliot poems not included in the Old Possum collection.
That is basically the show, with a couple of side plots–Old Deuteronomy is kidnapped by a sinister cat named Macavity (but we are never afeared of the outcome), and a well-past-his prime theater cat, Asparagus (Gus, to his friends), recreates one of his great stage triumphs, "The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles," with all the other Jellicle Cats joining in wearing adorable masks over their fantastically conceived cat costumes. Such imaginative nonsense, and such joy!
The joy, which heartily embraces the nonsense, comes through Lloyd Webber's exquisitely varied score, beautifully co-orchestrated with David Cullen; the genius of John Napier's scenic and (especially) costume designs; and marvelously feline choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (Tony winner for In the Heights, Hamilton and Bandstand), based on the original masterful choreography by the late Gillian Lynne. Dance is an essential part of Cats, reminding me of how many more recent musicals make short shrift of this element. Lynne and Blankenbuehler make good use of keenly observed actual cat movement within a veritable cavalcade of musical theater dance motifs.
This touring production is based on the 2016 Broadway revival of Cats and, like that revival and the original London and Broadway productions, it is directed by Trevor Nunn, who unleashes an unerring sense of how an assembly of Jellicle Cats would behave on such a night. He can transition from a stage exploding with leaping cats to tight focus on a single character tucked in a corner of the trash-strewn back alley setting quicker than the blink of a kitten's eye.
The entire cast is terrific, performing with tireless energy and precision. With twenty-two actors playing twenty-six named characters, plus a four member Cats chorus, this is one of the largest companies making the rounds today. Standouts include Hank Santos as self-absorbed ladies' man Rum Tum Tugger; Michelle E. Carter's giddily tap-dancing Jennyanydots; Brian Craig Nelson as Mungojerrie; and Taryn Smithson as Rumpleteazer, partners in mischief; John Anker Bow as Asparagus, the theater cat; John Zamborsky as Skimbleshanks the railroad cat (and what a glorious production number he presides over); Nora DeGreen and Erica Lee Cianciulli as Demeter and Bombalurina, a sultry pair who bring out the heat in praise of Macavity; Ibn Snell as Mr. Mistoffelees, a magician if ever there was one; and, last but in no way least, Tayler Harris as Grizabella, with a voice to deliver a soaring "Memories."
The orchestra, under the direction of Jonathan Gorst, pours out Lloyd Webber's melodies with gusto, filling the house with music. With three keyboards, two on woodwinds, and one apiece on guitar, bass and percussion, they produce a rich, full sound. Mick Potter, who designed the sound, has created a balance between orchestra and voices, with neither ever overtaking the other. John Napier's single stage set is glorious, and Natasha Katz's inventive lighting has the effect of making that one set feel like a dozen. Finally, one more shout out to those costumes, each a unique and marvelous creation that is a part of its character's persona.
There you have it. I have gone, over my lifetime, from Cats skepticism to Cats acceptance to Cats adoration. It could happen to you as well. Get your paws over to the Orpheum and find out!
Cats runs through October 30, 2022, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $40.00 - $139.00. Educator and student rush tickets available for all performances, $30.00, cash only, limit of two tickets per ID. For ticket and performance information call 612-339-7007 or visi hennepintheatretrust.org. For tour information, visit ustour.catsthemusical.com.
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics based on" Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" by T.S. Eliot; Director: Trevor Nunn; Choreography: Andrew Blankenbuehler, based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne; Scenic and Costume Design: John Napier; Lighting Design: Natasha Katz; Sound Design: Mick Potter; Hair and Makeup Design Coordinator: Victoria Tinsman; Orchestrations: Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Cullen; Music Supervision: Brian Taylor; Music Director and Conductor: Jonathan Gorst; Music Coordinator: Talitha Fehr; Associate Director: Chrissie Cartwright; Associate Choreographers: Kim Craven; Assistant Choreographer: Ellenore Scott; Resident Choreographer: Grace Buckley; Associate Costume Designer: Abigail Hahn; Casting: Paul Hardt, Hardt Casting; Production Stage Manager: Emma Iacometta; Assistant Stage Manager: Marisa Gorst; Executive Producer: Angela Rowles.
Cast: Gracie Anderson (swing), Megan Arseneau (swing), Sam Bello (Sillabub), Luke Bernier (Cats chorus), Lexy Bittner (Cassandra), John Anker Bow (Peter/Bustopher Jones/Asparagus), Sam Buchanan (Plato/Macavity), Michelle E. Carter (Jennyanydots), Ellie Chancellor (swing), Erica Lee Cianciulli (Bombalurina), Max Craven (swing), Reagan Davidson (Tantomile), Nora DeGreen (Demeter), Allyson Duarte (Jellylorum), Dominic Fortunato (Pouncival), Sammy Fossum (Alonzo), Marisa Gorst (swing), Rachel Haber (Cats Chorus), Tayler Harris (Grizabella), Clara Hevia (Cats Chorus), Wilson Livingston (Coricopat), Kieran MacDonald (swing), José Raúl Mangual (swing), Brendan Moran (Tumblebrutus), Tony Mowatt (Cats Chorus), Brian Craig Nelson (Mungojerrie), Yuka Notsuka (Victoria), Hank Santos (Bill Bailey/Rum Tum Tugger), Cameron Schutza (Victor/Old Deuteronomy), Taryn Smithson (Rumpleteazer), Ibn Snell (Mistoffelees), Kade Wright (Munkustrap), John Zamborsky (Skimbleshanks).