Watching the touring company of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats (★★★☆☆) pounce around the Kennedy Center Opera House, it’s hard to imagine seeing the show for the very first time in 1982, and thinking, “Yes, this is gonna run for another twenty years.”
Through economic times good and bad, Trevor Nunn’s original Broadway production did indeed run for two decades, with nearly 7,500 trips to the Heaviside Layer. Cats only wound down at the turn of the century, before spawning a 2016 revival that begat the current tour, also directed by Nunn. Featuring choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton), based on Gillian Lynne’s original choreography, the show has freshened up its fur and makeup, and the Broadway original’s scenic and costume designer John Napier has gently updated the iconic looks of Grizabella, Mister Mistoffelees, Rum Tum Tugger, and friends.
Yet, however lithe these Jellicle Cats appear in their stripes and tails, or glamorously world-weary singing of bygone days in the sun, Cats, the record-setting, Tony-winning, Now and Forever phenomenon, remains an oddity among all-time hit shows. Summed up by the reaction of one nonplussed patron talking on her phone during press night intermission, “It’s really just a bunch of cats onstage.”
From a cat point of view, that should be the highest praise for any night of theater. Webber’s musical settings for T.S. Eliot’s knowing, mythologizing poems about the curious creatures beautifully embellish the feline peculiarities expressed in Eliot’s verse. But that tuneful appreciation of the singular nature of cats, and a robust live orchestra led by Eric Kang, cannot compensate for, or disguise, the dated sound of the score’s synths and disco-lite dance breaks. Still, many of the melodies are timeless, from the ear-worm of “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” to the darkly operatic “Entry of Grizabella.”
As the wearied Glamour Cat Grizabella, Keri René Fuller sings with a force to pierce the darkness. Her voice and talent more than live up to the splendor of “Memory.” Fuller produces chills with a key change, and does her part to tug along the show’s gossamer thread of a plot, as the Jellicle Cats gather to hear sage Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase) name which of them will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn.
The narrative details, like some of the names, generate titters that might not be intended. Meanwhile, much of the comedy that is intended falls flat, or rather, falls victim to a zippy pace that keeps this company of Cats, and the kids in the audience, on their toes, but rarely pauses to really breathe in a good laugh. At least Timothy Gulan shows ’em how to land a joke and let it simmer in his terrific performance as that incorrigible ham Augustus, a.k.a. “Gus the Theatre Cat.”
Somehow Gulan’s turn in the role of Bustopher Jones is a bit of a buzzkill, but such is the episodic nature of this beast that enjoyment depends heavily on each successive cat shining in his or her moment in the sun. Some don’t — although McGee Maddox is an electric Rum Tum Tugger, Alexa Racioppi resonates as Demeter, Tyler John Logan sings an arresting Macavity, and Caitlin Bond dances an exquisite Victoria, the pirouetting alabaster cat.
Blankenbuehler’s choreographic take on those interpretive cat dances expresses a bevy of feline emotions, most consistently the pure joy of the Jellicle gathering, and the Cats’ pride in their unique mysteriousness. Of course, after almost forty years, not all their moves retain the same mystery. Some of those Cat shimmies and hip swivels appear as passé as the score’s cosmic disco-synth sounds. These aren’t necessarily the coolest Cats. They are — in the Jellicles’ parlance — practical, dramatical, allegorical, metaphorical, and a dozen other things, but not hip, if that’s the cat you want.
They also sing that they’re political, but that’s a stretch, too. Cats concerns living, dying, eating, and dancing — but not much loving or learning. The sense of kid-friendly innocence feels not entirely authentic to the species, or as intriguing as, say, Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye notion that your four-legged friend steals into your room at night to inhale your essence while you sleep. These Cats are relatively tame in the end, and, despite Webber’s songs about their fathomless self-possession and mystery, are more ingratiating and eager to entertain than any real cat you’ve ever met.
Cats runs through October 6 at Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $49 to $149. Call 202-467-4600, or visit www.kennedy-center.org.