Friday, September 24, 2004

Cats (Carousel Dinner Theatre)

‘CATS’ acceptable, but less than purr-fection at Carousel

During the Smithsonian Museum’s symposium ,“The Actor’s Role in the Musical,” an original cast member of the New York production of ‘CATS’ was asked why the show with no plot and few memorable songs had become the longest running musical in Broadway history. His response centered on the belief that the audience became so entranced by each actor “becoming” the cat he or she was portraying, that the viewers were transported into the world of cats. He went on to say that the costumes and the makeup were also important elements.

It’s too bad that Marc Robin, the director and choreographer and costumer Dale Dobermardo of the production of ‘CATS’ at Carousel Dinner Theatre didn’t attend that lecture. Though Carousel’s production is perfectly acceptable the show lacks the magic needed to transform it into a wonderful experience.

Cats are amazing creatures. Each breed is distinct. Each cat has a personality all its own. They are independent beings, refusing to be trained. In order to transform this onto the stage, each actor must transmute him or herself into a particular cat. A Siamese is different from a Persian who is different from an alley cat. As audience members we must instinctively gain that from the actions of the performers. They must remain in that mind-set for the entire show, not just when they are solo performing. In a well-honed production of ‘CATS’ you should always believe that you are in the presence of a welter of individual cats. Unfortunately, this was not true in the Carousel production. The twitches, the back arches, the posturing, and the face cleaning came and went.

The Carousel cats are dressed in representative costumes. No one will believe they are actually cats. Even identifying the breed becomes difficult. Too bad. It was another missed opportunity to help capture the audience.

‘CATS’ has no plot, per se. It is a series of vignettes based on T. S. Eliot’s “OLD POSSUM’S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS.” Act I starts. It is midnight...not a sound from the pavement. An explosion of lights and music fills the theatre, revealing an abandoned tire plant. One by one, the curious cats emerge. Tonight is the one special night each year when the tribe of Jellicle Cats reunites to celebrate who they are. But the cats are not alone. Humans (the audience) are present in the cats' private world. The cats are at first reluctant and suspicious to include others in their domain. Gradually, the cats not only sing to the audience, but prowl into their presence. The Jellicle Ball allows the humans to gain an understanding of the various types of cats and their habits.

The only song from the show that has become well known is the haunting“Memory,” though “Old Deuteronomy” and “Mr. Mistoffelees” should sound familiar.

Production highlights include “The Old Gumbie Cat” and its nicely performed tap dancing, and the reprise of “Memory” which is well sung by Molly A. Curry and Christine Mild.

The actors in the Carousel production are young, enthusiastic and generally acceptable, but none are standouts. Many sing words, not meanings. Since they are presenting poetry and the words carry the entire understanding of the show, this is a major faux pas. The strongest singing performances were those by Kate Fahrner, Stephanie Youell, Emily Loftiss, Christine Mild and Molly Curry. Dancing highlights were presented by Johnathan Owen and Ben Franklin.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Carousel’s ‘CATS’ is an acceptable presentation. Most audience members will be positively impressed. If, however, the director was willing to spend time teaching total characterization and the need to interpret lyrics, and some adjustments were made in costuming, this could be an excellent production.