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The North American Tour Company of Cats.
The North American Tour Company of Cats.
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The Hard-Working Troupe in Cats Earn Their Weight in Kibble

Is there any classic musical more filled with filler than Cats?

Don't get me wrong, I love cats. I have cats. There's no more joy than when my beloved Nefer, a tuxedo, scratches the back of the sofa, pounces and licks my face, then flops over on her back, purring to be rubbed on her belly. All sins forgiven.

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's gargantuan smash musical about all things furry and feline (1981) has all Nefer's traits, except she can neither sing nor dance. More's the pity. She'd be perfect for this show. Cats butts its head against you, getting its scent into your pores, meows its adorableness, seductively sashays into your better nature, and begs to be rubbed. Its charms are hard to resist.

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 (the 4th longest-running Broadway musical) and 21 years to see it in London, Tokyo, Cape Town, Dubai, Buenos Aires, Mumbai, Stockholm, everywhere in the world except the Arctic Circle. Maybe you’re too young – it can happen. By conservative estimates, the show has reaped an international gross close to $4 billion! That's a lot of fur. (Opening night at the Hobby Center was packed to the whiskers for Broadway At the Hobby's touring production, so there are a lot of newbies to be nursed, or else the cultists had arrived.)

Like Wicked, Cats has its own special cult. One either loathes it or adores it. Dog people hate it. There's no middle ground. Basically it's a revue. There's no plot to speak of, only a series of English music hall sketches as the Jellicle cats do their furry showbiz thing. The score is clever, no doubt about it, thanks to Sir Andrew, 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, a Handel oratorio-inspired ending, “The Ad-dressing of Cats,” and a great deal of old-fashioned Broadway belt. It's a good score, just not much of a show. By the way, have you seen the trailer for the Tom Hooper movie, due out this December? Isn't Taylor Swift in a computer-generated cat suit redundant?

The musical is adapted from English master poet T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), a whimsical book of verses that describes the secret life of felines and how best we humans should deal with them. It’s set in a garbage dump where over-sized junkers and assorted detritus make the cats look cat-size. The make-up is extraordinary, as are the fanciful costumes (both designed by theater veteran John Napier). As usual in the cavernous Hobby, the sound quality is horrendous, so much of Eliot's idiosyncratic poetry is gone with the wind, under-amplified or buried beneath the raucous orchestra.

Since there’s no book to speak of, director Trevor Nunn keeps everything in perpetual motion. One of Cats’ novelties is to do away with spoken dialogue, and let the songs, dancing, costumes, and blazing lighting lead the way and work their wonders. Major characters have their own specialty numbers, like Rum Tum Tugger (McGee Maddox), the tail-chasing rock star rebel; the somewhat narrator Munkustrap (Dan Hoy); the old theater cat Asparagus (Timothy Gulan); the rapscallions Mungojerrie and Rumpelteasser (Justin W. Geiss and Rose Iannaccone); the leader of the pack Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase); and bad-ass Mistoffelees (Tion Gaston). The cats meet once a year for their “Jellicle Ball,” where Deuteronomy picks the cat who gets a new life. This year's choice is pariah Grizabella (an emotion-drenched Keri René Fuller), who's blessed with the iconic aria, “Memory,” the musical's claim to fame. The lyrics for this blockbuster song were written by Nunn, not Eliot. His royalties earned him more money than all his lifetime of distinguished theater work combined.

Andy Blankenbuehler's undistinguished choreography, based upon Gillian Lynne's original work, falls somewhere between Ann Margaret’s Las Vegas act and a regional disco recital. Among the faux ballet steps, like ronde de jambs, pirouettes, and arabesques, there're plenty of bump-and-grinds, shimmies, and pseudo-cat sex positions. Surprisingly, I didn't see one pas de chat. None of the dancing registers as cat-like, and the most feline activity takes place when the actors are milling about, 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 lights hide a thousand bad dance steps.

The cast of Cats is huge and worth their weight in Kibbles. This show doesn't have nine lives, it has millions. It will prowl forever. You'll be tempted I know, but, please, don't lick your neighbor on the way out.

Cats continues through October 27 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.org or broadwayatthehobbycenter.com. $35-$250.

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