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A Spirited Production: Cats from Broadway in Houston

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The set-up:

For all ten of you who have never seen this iconoclastic whopper of a show, just what have you been doing? You've had 7,485 times to see it in New York and 21 years to see it in London. Maybe you're too young -- it can happen. The second-longest-running show ever on Broadway opened in the dark ages of 1982, and it's running in Houston courtesy of Broadway in Houston. Oh, by the way, it's about cats who dance and sing.

The show is adapted from English master poet T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" (1939), a whimsical little collection of poems that describes the secret life of felines and how best we humans should deal with them. It's set in a garbage dump where oversize junk cars and assorted detritus make the cats look actual cat-size. The make-up is extraordinary, as are the fanciful costumes (both designed by theater veteran John Napier).

Individual characters have their own songs, like Rum Tum Tugger (Matthew Taylor), the tail-chasing rock star rebel in Webber's rendition, or Skimbleshanks (Louie Napoleon), the railway cat, "unless he's very nimble/Then the Night Mail just can't go." The cats meet once a year for their "Jellicle Ball," where titular leader Old Deuteronomy (Jeremy Brauner) picks a cat to get a new life and go off to kitty heaven. That's it for story.

The execution:

Thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber, who had stunned Broadway earlier with pop operas Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) and Evita (1979), the musical purrs. It's very much English vaudeville: a little bit verismo opera homage, a smidgen of Elgar-sounding anthems, and even a Handel oratorio-inspired ending, "The Ad-Dressing of Cats." All these disparate musical elements work, in part because original director Trevor Nunn keeps everything in constant motion, since there's no "book" to speak of. One of Cats' novelties was to do away with spoken dialogue, and let the songs, dancing, costumes and blazing lighting design lead the way and work their wonders.

Unfortunately, Gillian Lynne's undistinguished choreography falls somewhere between Ann Margaret's Las Vegas act and a regional disco recital. None of the steps register as cat-like, and the most feline activity takes place when the actors aren't dancing. But the talented ensemble dance their paws off. Considering that, at any time, the cast is either singing or dancing, usually both, it's amazing how well it all works. The costumes and blinding lighting hide a thousand bad dance steps.

Of course, what Cats has in spades is its classic hit tune, "Memory," sung by the old glamour puss Grisabella (Kathryn Holtkamp), soon to take her ride skyward. I'm pleased to say that Holtkamp sings it most memorably. A note: the lyrics for "Memory" were written by Nunn, not Eliot. His royalties on the song earned him more money than all his lifetime of theater work combined.

The verdict:

The cast of Cats is huge, and I'm loathe to leave anybody out, but theatrical cat Gus (Bronson Murphy), master of ceremonies Munkustrap (Zach Hess), song-and-dance duo Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer (Will Porter and Kristen Quartarone), and sleek magician Mistoffelees (Chris MacKenthum) are worth their Kibbles -- as is this spirited touring production from Broadway Across America.

The show runs through April 17 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-622-7469.

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