Friday, November 17, 2006

Cat (Playhouse Square Center)

Touring production of ‘CATS’ is cat-lite

Midnight. Not a sound from the pavement. Suddenly an explosion of music and lights reveals a larger-than-life junkyard. Probing lights dart across the darkened landscape, catching the darting image of a running feline. Tonight is the one special night each year when the tribe of Jellicle Cats reunites to celebrate who they are. The stage explodes as one by one the cats appear! Thus starts ‘CATS,’ Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical, based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” by T. S. Eliot. A touring company is now performing the show at the Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square.

With no plot and a few memorable songs (“Memory” and “The Moments of Happiness”) one must wonder why ‘CATS,’ which opened twenty-five years ago has become such a hit. In fact, it holds the record as the longest running play in the history of Broadway musical theatre.

The answer may have been given by an original cast member of the New York show during a Smithsonian Museum’s symposium ,“The Actor’s Role in the Musical,” which I attended in Washington, D.C. several years ago. A member of the audience asked why the show is such a cult hit. The 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, the special effects and the makeup were also important elements.

That answer explains why this production is less than wonderful. It’s too bad that tour director and choreographer Richard Stafford and his cast didn’t attend that lecture. At no time during this staging did I forget that actors were “pretending” to be cats, not being cats, themselves. Former productions I have seen made that transition. The actors stayed in character throughout. They cleaned themselves, they stretched, they rubbed against each other, they WERE cats. Part of this lack of character depth may be that the cast members are almost all in their first touring show and few have had professional experience. Besides being cat-lite, they are experience-lite.

A friend commented at intermission, “I’ve seen this play numerous times and something is missing.” When I mentioned the cat-factor, she smiled and said, “That’s it!”

The elaborate sets work, the musical sounds are fine, the cast sings and dances well, the choreography is good (not electric, but good), but the show doesn’t have the necessary spark that would make it great.

Did the production get a standing ovation? Of course. Cleveland audiences seem to believe that they have to stand and cheer no matter whether the quality of a production deserves it or not. It’s like giving every student in class an “A.” It makes the receiver feel good, but it is disingenuous. How do you really praise excellence when it happens? But, that’s a topic for another review...

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: For the majority of the audience, ‘CATS’ will be a positive experience. For those who can discern the acceptable from the great, this production of ‘CATS’ will be less than ‘purr-fection.”