REVIEW: Cat scratch fever overtakes Chicago as ‘Cats’ Broadway tour arrives
By Jack Gardner
“Cats” pounced onto stage at Chicago’s James M. Nederlander Theatre, remaining through Aug.4, as part of its North American tour. Fresh from its Broadway revival in 2016, “Cats” has won seven Tony Awards, including best musical for the original production in 1982.
Based on the poems in “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Elliot and composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, famous for “Phantom of the Opera,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “School of Rock,” “Cats” is a sung-through musical about a clan of cats called the Jellicles, who gather annually for a ball in which they decide which cat will be awarded a new life. The premise is deceptively simple, yet the nature of the musical, including no dialogue, having very little plot and being populated with hybrid man-cats to begin with, makes one wonder if they’re missing something. However, to quote Weber himself, “This is just about cats.”
“Cats,” devotes 80 percent of its runtime to character introduction. Highlights of the hair-covered roster include Rum Tum Tugger (played by McGee Maddox), the unappeasable rockstar-esque cat, Grizabella (played by Keri René Fuller) the former glamour cat who has since been ostracised by the Jellicles, Old Deuteronomy (played by Brandon Michael Nase), the oldest and wisest of the Jellicles who acts as their leader, Gus (played by Timothy Gulan) the theatre cat, and Mr. Mistoffelees (played by Tion Gaston), the magical cat.
The stand-out roles, however, are Rum Tum Tugger and Grizabella. Maddox’s performance alone makes this show a spectacle as he bounds across John Napier’s set, constructed to look like a junkyard, and moves with such sly confidence in a way which I’ve only seen done by an actual cat. Not to mention, he delivers the second best song in the show, that being “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees,” which showers the Nederlander in the full spectrum of colors while the cats rejoice at the arrival of Mistoffelees and his magical antics. However, the best song is of course “Memory,” which is possibly one of the best known songs in musical theatre, and is delivered by Grizabella. Fuller does this classic justice as her voice captures the melancholy of her character’s past while also pleading for acceptance from her peers. This number proves to be a show-stopper and one of the most memorable climaxes to any musical I’ve seen with Broadway in Chicago.
Fans of past incarnations of this show are most likely wondering whether or not Gus’s infamous “Growltiger’s Last Stand” number or the Italian parody-opera “In Una Tepida Notte” make an appearance in this production. The answer is: neither! The “new” number “The Awefull Battle of Pekes and Pollicles” that was introduced in the 2016 revival returns as an inoffensive alternative to the once problematic original number and a proper mood-setter for the whimsical antics of Gus, in contrast to the mock Italian aria that appeared in the original Broadway production. In contrast, the song, “The Awefull Battle of Pekes and Pollicles” features the career defining scene of Gus’s theatre days as he dons the persona of the Great Rumpus Cat for one last time in order to reenact a battle between clans of opposing canine.
“Cats” which, is the fourth-longest-running Broadway show, has seen few reinterpretations of its design elements since 1982. However, for its 2017 revival and subsequent tour, “Cats” boasted an all-star team of designers to reinterpret the show while also staying true to the original production. While I’ve never seen the original Broadway run, I can say that the production team behind “Cats” has delivered something special for this tour. As previously mentioned, the set by John Napier, the original scenic and costume designer from the ‘82 production, is wondrously complex and is built from every obscure piece of rubbish you could imagine to find in a junkyard. Additionally, the props, including jagged fragments of a mirror, large basketballs, and a giant mop for the cats to ride on remind us that our feline friends are supposed to be the size of actual cats and keep us grounded in this world.
The set at first seemed confusing, as it took up most of the stage and appeared to leave little room for this choreography heavy show. Although, the choreography never frequently stays confined to the center of the stage, taking to the multiple levels of the set, various platforms — such as the hoods of cars — and even into the isles of the audience. Andy Blankenbuehler, made famous by his choreography on “Hamilton,” channels the chaotic and boundless movement of a feral cat into his choreography. Also worth mentioning is Blankenbuehler’s work on this production is heavily based on the original choreography by the late Gillian Lynne (who died at age 93 in July 2018), blending new with old in a way that is both respectful to the source material, but also refreshing. The two numbers where the updated choreography is most apparent are in “The Rum Tum Tugger” and “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees,” wherein the dancing becomes more hip hop infused. Not to worry though, the numbers stay true to the originals, as the rapping, breakdancing Rum Tum Tugger is nowhere to be found in this tour, instead the dancing feels more true to that of a modern rockstar’s concert performance.
A lot of the movement is also elevated by the tails, fur and ears of the costumes as opposed to hindering it. The costumes, once again courtesy of Napier, are fun and inventive, each conveying all you need to know about the character, from Grizabella’s tattered and matted mane to Skimbleshanks’s railway vest.
Additionally, the lighting, from Natasha Katz of “Aladdin” fame, benefits the tone of each number, as it will change at the drop of a hat due to each song introducing a different personality. The lighting will either add energy to a number, or make it moody and atmospheric. Strings of lights suspended above the audience further supports the shift in vantage point to being in the center of the story, as opposed to viewing from outside-in. Of course, the strings also light up the aisles during numbers where cats converge into the audience. Lighting is also used for effects such as the cats’ eyes, both mounted on their heads as they take their entrances as well as in between the crevasses in the set when the rest of the stage goes dark, letting us know a cat is always lurking nearby.
Ultimately, whether you’re an old fan, new blood or simply baffled by the new trailer for the live-action adaptation, “Cats” remains a legendary anomaly in musical theatre’s history. For anyone even mildly interested in theatre, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s variety show of musical pastiches is a must-see that will offer important insight into the medium.
FYI: Tickets are $30-$110 at www.broadwayinchicago.com or at (312) 977-1710