Broadway favorites often find their way onto the big screen, but some should never leave the stage. When the trailer for Universal Pictures’ Cats adaptation dropped last month, the internet was quick to hiss at the eerie, down-to-scale human/cat hybrids bearing the vague likenesses of Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo and, most disturbingly, Taylor Swift. It just looks goofy and wrong, if entirely unnerving.
We don’t need a movie about singing, costumed CGI cats who walk the streets of London on their hind legs as they introduce themselves one by one, partly because The Lion King gave us enough creepily life-like singing cats to last a lifetime, and also because the live Cats production is perfect the way it is.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash musical based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is a whimsical classic that works in a live setting thanks to an unspoken pact with audiences. We know there’s no plot. We know this is a series of vignettes worth watching for a triple-threat cast’s immense talents in dancing, singing and purring. We know those aren’t actually cats up there—they’re people in makeup and sequined faux fur. The movie trailer makes my eyes cross. What is that I’m seeing? A skinny furry baby person? A sexy cat with human eyes? In the stage musical, it’s easy to accept the story’s rift from reality. I’ve seen Cats twice now, and the extravagant character study of wacky Jellicle cats hosting a funeral ball still feels like a fever dream—and that’s just the way it should be.
That theater lovers are still, nearly 40 years after Cats’ West End premiere, willing to forfeit a plot in exchange for a nonsensical feline-fronted circus act is a testament to Webber’s compositions and producers’ precision on the creative side. From the hymn-like introduction to “Jellicle Cats” to Rum Tum Tugger’s flamboyant bad-boy number to Grizabella’s stirring “Memory,” which still to this day milks tears from audiences even though her character arc is virtually nonexistent, the music makes Cats. And with a pitch-perfect live orchestra (like the one at Fox Theatre on the national tour’s opening night in Atlanta), the songs sound even better.
The choreography from Cats’ first Broadway revival (which also carries over to the tour) quite literally taps into our nostalgia. Hamilton’s Andy Blankenbuehler freshens up the dazzling originals with a little sass: lots of frisky hip sways, suspicious tail-twirling and impressive acrobatics. Emily Jeanne Phillips does a mean number on The Old Gumbie Cat’s tap extravaganza, Tony d’Alelio (Mungojerrie) and Rose Iannaccone (Rumpelteazer) jazz up the twin criminals’ dance duet with assisted flips and pirouettes, and Tion Gaston does justice to audience favorite Mistoffelees, who flaunts a bedazzled tuxedo as he descends from the ceiling and sashays across the stage. Caitlin Bond also brings expected grace and stamina to Victoria, the all-white ballerina cat who’s tougher than she looks, and Keri René Fuller does an astoundingly good job with Grizabella’s combination of meager shuffling and fortified singing (she received a well-deserved standing-O for “Memory”).
But very often the most impressive choreography happens when the whole 32-person cast is on stage. The clowder stalks and prances in awesome harmony, even if a few Act I numbers weren’t as tight Act II’s. It was opening night, after all. I’m sure everyone was shaking off a post-rehearsal nap.
Theatre snobs sometimes sneer at Cats, but it’s one of the best purely song-and-dance productions I’ve seen on a stage, either in New York or on tour. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a theatrical genius with an uncanny knack for catchy, sweeping music, and he brought magic to Eliot’s already endearing words. These songs will probably outlive us all. As for the film adaptation, I can’t imagine how it will live up to the real thing, which continues to be a good ol’ fashioned flirtation with classic Broadway camp and a phenomenon that sells out show after show in London, New York and all over the world. But if you’re like my seat neighbor at Tuesday’s production, it may not be for you.
“I’m a dog person,” he said before the overture. Then he didn’t return for Act II.