"CATS" A Theater Mirror Review

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide


entire contents copyright © 1996 by THE THEATER MIRROR and Lucie N. Patrowicz


A Review by Lucie N. Patrowicz

"CATS" may not be every cat person's fancy. It's not for the sentimental. It's a series of feline vignettes based on "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," a collection of poems by T.S. Eliot. In structure it is a collection of profiles similar to "A Chorus Line". But unlike that show, "CATS," is remarkably short on sense, even for a musical. There is no dazzling display of technical wizardry in the show. No revolving stage props. No dry ice. And throughout most of the show, there is only one set. It is instead rich in the real meat of musical theatre: song and dance.

The show's lack of meaningful coherence can't be blamed on its concept. T.S. Eliot's poems are entertaining. They make good bedtime reading for small children, though you probably wouldn't choose to read them all at one sitting. The trouble is that in the the Shubert's production Eliot's witticisms are often lost in all the commotion. It was hard to tell whether the problem was the orchestration, the acoustics, or poor enunciation, but no one saw to it that the songs' verses -- the verses that underpin the entire production -- could be understood. Since there isn't a word of spoken dialogue, that is a shame. Because there is so little plot and so many lyrics are hard to hear, some members of the audience -- our party included -- were stifling yawns by the second number in Part Two.

The show's real strength is in dance. Watching dancers leap, stretch, or simply recline in cat-like ways, you not only recognize feline traits you may never have picked up before, but marvel at the versatility of the human body. Were those really human beings hanging from the props in those convoluted, unmistakably feline positions? What about that one lying on its back, draped over the sloping trunk of a junkyard Buick, head reaching down toward the stage? Was he attached with velcro? Sure, a cat can make a position like that look comfortable. (And if you've ever been nine months pregnant, you've probably been tempted to contort yourself into a similar pose in a desperate attempt to get some sleep.) But how does a mere human being, blood flooding his head, manage to look at home that way for any length of time?

A few felines in "CATS" stand out from the caterwaul. The most sparkling personality to make an appearance in Part One is Rum Tum Tugger, a contrary sort who will only "do as he do do" and is "always on the wrong side of every door." No self-effacing closet kitty, Rum is a leather-and-chain, gay blade of a tomcat, flamboyantly played and danced by J. Robert Spencer.

One stand-out in Part Two is Skimbleshanks (Blair Bybee), a cat who lives to ride the rails --- a radiant personality, outstanding dancer, and all-around crowd pleaser. But the most spectacular dance number went to North Shore native Joe Favalora, who played Mr. Mistoffelees, The Original Conjuring Cat. Favalora was indefatigable, sailing effortlessly through multiple leaps and pirouettes. For sheer musical theatre energy, he stole the show.

Most of us in the Western hemisphere has heard the song "Memories" and seen clips of "CATS" on T.V., so the plight of the aging glamour cat Grizabella should be moving. But since there was no attempt at character development in Jeri Sager's performance, it wasn't. Still, her final rendition of "Memories" was phenomenal. For a moment the theater seemed to levitate. Singer and song were one, and we in the audience clung achingly to that voice, suspended with longing somewhere above the stage. The moment, though brief, was arguably worth the astronomical price of admission.

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide