Sunday, September 15, 2002

'CATS' (Playhouse Square Center)

'CATS' claws its way back into Allen Theatre

What more can be said about the musical CATS? The records just keep piling up. CATS is the longest continuously running touring show in U.S. history. It is the longest running music ever in both London, where it is still running, and in New York, where it opened in 1981 and closed on September 10, 2000. It has been presented in 26 countries and over 300 cities and has been translated into 10 languages. But, there may be some new facts to share: the set of CATS consists of 2,500 oversized props, three writers tried to set words to the music for the show’s biggest hit song, “Memory” before Trevor Nunn (the show’s director) wrote the lyrics himself. “Memory” has been recorded by over 150 artists, from Barbra Streisand to Johnny Mathis to Liberace. Barry Manilow’s rendition was a Top 40 hit. The play generated the most jobs in Broadway history. It also generated over $3.12 billion into New York’s economy during its run. Also, did you know that for the Broadway opening, the Winter Garden Theatre was gutted and the roof replaced to accommodate the trip of Grizabela, who sings “Memory” to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn?

The show, which is based on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and has music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, has been called “purrfection.” It is credited with being a “marvelous accomplishment.” It won seven 1983 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best book of a Musical, Best Lighting and Best Costumes.

CATS seems to be the kind of musical that people absolutely love or hate. I don’t quite hate it, but put me in the “I’d rather see a musical with a plot that has more than one hit song” category. That’s not to say that I didn’t find the production appearing on the stage of Allen Theatre in Playhouse Square entertaining, I did. I just don’t see what all the fuss is about. I don’t think CATS compares with WEST SIDE STORY, CHORUS LINE, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, MY FAIR LADY, or CAROUSEL as a great musical. Yes, the costumes are fun. The idea of cats clawing their way around the theatre and playing with the patrons is cute. And, “Memory” is a great song, in fact, probably one of musical theatre’s greatest songs. But, does the show deserve all the accolades? I say, “nope.”

The touring production does the script it’s service. Though they lack some of the intensity of previous productions, the human felines generally are catlike in their actions. The voices are excellent. The sets and costumes are as good as touring shows get.

Capsule judgement: The show was advertised as a format for a whole new generation of theatre-goers to experience the show. By the audience at opening night, the ads keyed in on the right group. The theatre was filled with youngsters. And, yes, the did get an experience. They squealed with delight when a cat sat on the arm of their chairs, they petted the animals when they leaned toward them. One adorable little girl who was very dressed up in her best pink and white dress who was sitting next to me kept up a running commentary comparing the live version to the video she has at home. She was favorably impressed with seeing the show in person. What more can be asked for?