My gateway show was not Cats—nor was it Les Miz or Phantom. I grew up, like any self-respecting theater snob, disdaining such tourist trash from afar. Lacking youthful nostalgia for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s synth-heavy score and the trademark image of actors writhing about in leg warmers, hissing through face paint, I’ve now seen the real thing live and up close. It blew my mind a little—like experiencing someone else’s déjà vu. Mainly I’m shocked that this ran from Reagan to Clinton. Most 12-year-olds have terrible taste; you can’t blame them, they’re only kids. They probably didn’t say to themselves: This show is amazing, but is it any good?
Tough question. When Cats opened at the Winter Garden in 1982, it was an incredibly risky experiment. T.S. Eliot’s 1939 book of children’s poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, set to Britpop, sub-Puccini and English music-hall melodies. Actor-dancers poured into skin-tight unitards (well, that one’s a no-brainer). The whole thing whipped to a frenzy in Trevor Nunn’s music-video staging, perhaps cribbed from a Las Vegas discotheque. The first producers must have had screaming nightmares of bankruptcy.
Today, Cats feels experimental only in the sense of writing a show as if Oklahoma! and Company never happened. Lloyd Webber’s ability to craft a coherent book musical has always been shaky (School of Rock being a late-career exception to the rule). Cats is an attenuated high-concept revue that grows tedious by its second act. A bunch of cats slink out one night, introduce themselves and, by the end, two of them go to kitty heaven. Now and then you may catch a word not normally heard on Broadway: “ineffable” or “perpendicular.”
This was a lost opportunity. Rather than lamely re-creating the original (with some punchier added choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler), why not orchestrate the score for acoustic instruments, redo the costumes and dances, and find fresh drama underneath the tacky, dated pageantry? Instead we get a taxidermied pet. If there is heart to the piece, it’s Grizabella, the faded, outcast “glamour cat.” British crooner Leona Lewis has a big, yearning voice, but even her (heavily amplified) yowling of “Memory” can’t make the past worth revisiting.—David Cote
Neil Simon Theatre (Broadway). Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne. Directed by Trevor Nunn. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission. Click here for full venue and ticket information.