Theater Review: CATS (National Tour, 2019)

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by Tony Frankel on March 18, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


If I had my way, the slogan for Cats would be changed from “Now and Forever” to “Not Now, Not Ever.” Even when I saw the show back in the early 80s and again in the early 90s, I simply couldn’t make it through another act and bolted at intermission. After seeing the national tour at the Hollywood Pantages last week, I can understand why I did what I did. With some fun melodies by Andrew Lloyd Weber, some may call it a musical, but it’s really a song cycle wherein T.S. Eliot’s poetry is stuffed into bars of music where they don’t often belong. A nuisance of cats are gathering for some kind of alley party to decide which cat among them deserves reincarnation; they introduce themselves to us; then an old puss who we don’t know will use up her ninth life and float up to the feline firmament. The end. It’s near impossible to understand what the hell is going on.

Besides being the fourth-longest-running show in Broadway history (how many lives does this Queen have?!?), what is Cats? It’s a safe choice for the older crowd (read: your mother) who can’t get enough of those lithe bodies, dry ice, and anthropomorphic antics of actors in John Napier’s furry costumes that look like they came from Jane Fonda’s aerobic workout closet. (Little has been updated since 1981.) Still impressive is the choreography of the great Gillian Lynne (who we lost last year at 92) — updated by Andy Blankenbuehler — but the songs are now a bit clawing — um, cloying — and director Trevor Nunn (who wrote the lyrics for “Memory”) has yet to tone down the frantic antics.

Besides blue-hairs, it’s also great for overseas tourists because there’s nothing to follow (many of the lyrics are incomprehensible, so those don’t matter). Plus, the images are a magical display of creativity; truly, it was a revolutionary feat for 1981 as one of the first concept musicals, but nearing 40, it’s not so impressive. I imagine young kids would like it, but they deserve substance, too.

Cats also arrived on the scene just as AIDS dug its nails into the arts, killing off more than talent — the disease also robbed us of a discerning audience. I’m convinced that Cats would never have come this far were it not for HIV.

And to think principal photography has already wrapped for the movie version, which will be released Christmas Day this year. Starring Ian McKellan, Jennifer Hudson, James Corden, (ack!) Taylor Swift, and Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy, the part originated by Ken Page (ack!). And get this, it’s directed (ack!) by Tom Hooper, who brought us the excruciatingly flat voice of Russell Crowe and (ack!) close-ups of Anne Hathaway’s snot in the film version of Les Misérables (ack! ack!). Sorry … hair ball.

But the biggest surprise was how many folks (hopefully not critics) acted like they had cat scratch fever, bolting from the theater at intermission faster than a startled pussy. It didn’t help that this felt like a non-Equity outing that lacked richness with some less-than-magnetic leads — a young Keri René Fuller in her first national tour played Grizabella, but sang “Memory” with the pop sound reserved for Les Miz‘s Éponine, not a grizzled belle, which made the old cat’s death seem odd (the set is cheaper now, so instead of a magic floating tire, we get a little Flying by Foy, which actually was a nice touch; we also don’t get a turntable). The dancing, as always, lit up the house, but it’s weird when they come down the theater’s aisles to sing right to us (you do know that these cats are aware of human spectators, right?). I promise you the cast was having more fun than the audience around me, who were a bit catatonic.

photos by Matthew Murphy

national tour
ends on March 24, 2019, at Hollywood Pantages
meowing into 2020
for dates and tickets, visit Cats

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Debbie L Ro March 18, 2019 at 4:28 pm

I agree that the choreography by the late Ms. Lynne is the best aspect of the show and a testimony to its longevity but having lived in New York in the waning years of its run, Cats seemed to be kept afloat by the success of Lord Webber’s neighboring successful productions of Phantom of the Opera and Joseph. Also, the original glamour cat, Grizabella, appeared to have mingled in higher social circles than this production’s seemingly partied-out club kitty in need of rehab.


Cris Franco March 18, 2019 at 10:39 pm

Tony – the older I get the more I like Cats. It’s a daring flight of fancy into the outer stratosphere of the concept musical – bordering on experimental theater. And for me, this experiment was a success. This is a wonderful national tour.


Liz March 22, 2019 at 9:44 pm

Yessss. Hated it in the ’80s.


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