A Real Dog
Andrew Lloyd Webber's astonishingly successful Cats yowled on Broadway for nearly two decades. In fact, in the summer of 1997, it pranced its way into the record books when it became the longest-running show in Broadway's history. This makes the musical, which was built around T.S. Eliot's charming and silly poems about the secret world of cats, one of Broadway's greatest mysteries -- because the truth is, Cats is a real dog of a show. And Theatre Under the Stars' very earnest production, now running at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, can do little to change that painful truth.
One of the biggest problems with the musical is the anemic plotline. The story concerns a group of cats who congregate one moonlit night in a tire-filled junkyard. We soon find out that they've gathered for "The Jellicle Ball," in which a grizzled, gray-haired feline named Old Deuteronomy (Ken Page, who originated the role on Broadway) will choose a lucky cat to be reborn. What starts out as an interesting premise soon devolves into a series of loosely connected numbers with goofy names such as "Bustopher Jones" and "The Rum Tum Tugger."
So the majority of the two-and-a-half-hour show consists of songs that do one of two things. They either advise us on how to deal with cats -- as in "The Naming of Cats" and "The Ad-dressing of Cats" -- or they introduce us to the naughty denizens of the Jellicle world. There are too many to name here, but a few of the more memorable cats include Mungojerrie (Benjie Randall) and Rumpleteazer (Holly Ann Butler), two "knockabout" cats who "would go through the house like a hurricane," stealing food, causing havoc and generally annoying all humans. There's also Asparagus (Michael Iannucci), a dusty old theater cat who spends one very long scene remembering his triumphs on the stage. And one of the oddest fellows to make an appearance is the ballet-dancing Mistoffelees (Ryan Jackson) -- he twirls about making Christmas lights appear with a wave of his arm.
It would be hard for any cast to make this ragtag group of soulless cartoons interesting, especially given the fact that none of them has any real bearing on the plot (Mistoffelees does save the day by finding Old Deuteronomy when he gets lost, but only after a good ten minutes of seemingly pointless pirouetting across the stage). All these felines, dressed up in some fancy makeup, have no place to go in terms of a story. Instead, they spend their time singing Webber's dull music and dancing Marc Robin's choreography, which includes a mishmash of tap, ballet and bland Broadway flash and is most notable for its circuslike tumbling.
The single character on which the bone-thin plot turns is a tattered old girl named Grizabella (Linda Balgord) who was, in her day, "the glamour cat." It's obvious from the start that Old Deuteronomy will pick her to be reborn. She's about as mangy as a cat can get, and all the other cats are downright mean to her for no good reason, so something great is bound to happen to her. Even more important, however, is the fact that she gets to sing "Memory," the one notable tune from the show.
When Balgord sings the annoyingly unforgettable song, she turns to face the light and clenches her kitty fists, evoking the scenery-chewing melodrama for which Webber is so famous. In fact, wearing her flea-bitten coat and thick black eyeliner, Grizabella looks an awful lot like a feline version of another one of the songwriter's overripe lady characters: the aging Norma Desmond, who lives only for another chance at stardom in Sunset Boulevard (a role that Balgord played in the national tour).
Grizabella is written and played with such histrionics that when the vacuous music swells to gigantic emotional proportions and she ascends a rickety-looking staircase to cat heaven, it's hard to feel anything other than relief that the actress makes it to the top without falling off.
Cats is an easy show to make fun of. It's a truly dreadful piece of Broadway drivel that has made a ton of money for everyone associated with it. Who cares how bad it is? The show has clearly got more lives than all the cats on stage put together.
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