Whenever a production of Cats is announced on a theatre calendar, you can smell the cynicism in air. There has never been a musical more maligned then Andrew Lloyd Webber's dancing felines. A populist piece that has changed the face of theatre as it was the first of the mega-musicals when it had its 1981 London premier. It is clear that decades later, this malignment is misplaced as Cats has proven itself not only a musical that can stand the test of time, but also, one of the greatest theatre pieces ever written. The newest American tour (non-equity) is now installed at the Cadillac Palace for an all to brief week.
With a nod from Sir Andrew, this tour is solid and sassy and is as close to the Trevor Nunn original staging that has been seen in the last several tours to pass through. The set, though scaled down is quite effective and the lighting is actually better then its predecessors. Also, in keeping with the original direction, the orchestra is tucked away behind the set (as is required by any licensing agreement with the Rogers & Hammerstein Library which holds the rights).
Cats, first and foremost, is a dance show. Giliian Lynne's choreography runs the gamut, giving nods to Bob Fosse (McCavity) and Twyla Tharp (Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats) as well as employing the most intricate of ballet moves. In fact, Mr. Webber's initial concept was to have Cats be a traveling ‘tent' show before the theatricality overtook the piece. Then there is the score, one of Lloyd Webber's finest, containing some fantastic sweeping melodies, arias, jazz riffs and majestic choral numbers, as well as a little number called ‘Memory' which, arguably, is the greatest song written for the stage.
The cast of this new tour is vocally superb, especially the male tenors. Tub Watson (Munkustrap), Adam Steiner (Rum Tug Tugger), John Jacob Lee (Skimbleshanks) and Philip Peterson (Old Deuteronomy) are as good, if not better then the original London and Broadway predecessors. There is no Cats without Grizzabella, and inhabited by the sensational Anastasia Lange, not since Betty Buckley has the g-flat to d-flat key change of ‘Touch Me' been handled in such a show stopping manner. Ms. Lange literally shook the rafters off the Cadillac Palace and there was nary a dry eye around me when she finished her ‘Memory'. If fact, other then Ms. Buckley, Ms. Lange is the most interesting Grizzabella I have ever seen. In her first act solo dance, Ms. Lange is absolutely amazing, as she makes her character akin to Norma Desmond in both movement and style and gives a silent film star quality to the role which is nuanced, original and breathtaking.
Chicago (and some of the bigger cities the tour shall play in) is lucky to get an enhanced orchestra. This is certainly welcomed with the incredible horn section which was so vibrant, I can't imagine the score being played without them. Under the masterful direction of J. Michael Duff (a Marriott Lincolnshire alum) Webber's score has never been in finer hands, especially listening to the Jellicle Ball which is a feast for the ears.
Where this new tour fails is in many of the dance numbers. As a group, there is a lack on intricacy in some of the big production numbers. Hopefully as the company gets more shows under their fur, they will grow more unified, but for now the dance captain needs to get a tighter reign on some of the performers.
Whether seeing this show for the first or fortieth time, Cats is pure theatre. Like it or not, this groundbreaking musical will be around now and forever.
Cats plays through October 18, 2009 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.; Tickets: $20 to $80; 800-775-2000 or www.broadwayinchicago.com.