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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
CATS
at Neil Simon Theatre

NIMBLE ON THEIR FEET
By BRIAN SCOTT LIPTON


Those slinky Jellicle Cats are having a ball at the Neil Simon Theatre. But will you?

Sixteen years after its last meow on Broadway, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s once-groundbreaking musical Cats still possesses the same love-it-or-hate-it qualities that have been dividing audiences for four decades. Some find this virtually plotless musical, adapted from T.S Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” to be thrilling, enchanting or at least entertaining. Others think it dull, dreary and wish to dump it right back into the litter box. For me, it’s like a lot of cat food – neither fish nor fowl.

Firstly, it’s more a revue than a musical. (And personally, I could do with a touch more plot.) And like most of Webber’s musicals, it’s a mixed bag of melodies – some instantly hummable, others instantly forgettable, some you think you’ve heard before. (Intriguingly, the echoes of Phantom of the Opera, which debuted a few years later, are truly undeniable.)

And of course, there’s always at least one great song. In this case, it’s the haunting “Memory,” sung more than once in various guises, but most memorably towards the show’s end by the old glamour cat Grizabella right before she flies away from the abandoned junkyard (once again designed by John Napier) to the “heavyside layer” to begin a new life. The tune is usually a guaranteed showstopper, and the biggest fault of Trevor Nunn’s production (a virtual recreation of his original) is that the British singer Leona Lewis, an impressive pop vocalist in her own right, has neither the gravitas to make us cry nor the heavenly theatrical belt needed to raise the roof. She also looks way too young and appears way too glamorous, lessening the needed effect. Still, I’ve been singing to myself about burnt-out ends of smoky days for days now.

“Memory” aside, the show’s true highlight remains, as ever, Gillian Lynne’s extraordinary choreography, which has been slightly modernized here by Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler, and danced with amazing feline grace and choreographic precision by a truly top-notch ensemble. The undeniable standout is Ricky Ubeda, a former champion of So You Think You Can Dance, who jetes and pirouettes with almost reckless abandon during “Magical Mister Mistopheles.” (He also has the slight advantage of wearing a jacket outfitted with flashing LED lights, one of the many innovations provided by the invaluable Natasha Katz).

There are plenty of other magical moments in the spotlight. Christopher Gurr brings the perfect mix of pathos and pretentiousness to Gus the Theatre Cat. Jess LoPretto and Shonica Godden prove to be a terrific terpsichorean team as those capering cat-burglars Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. Quentin Earl Darrington brings suitable gravitas to the role of the aptly named Old Deuteronomy. And Kim Faure and Christine Cornish Smith make a strong impression introducing the malevolent McCavity.

Yet some of the star turns aren’t as bright as they should be. While Tyler Hanes offers a certain sizzle and swagger as the rock-star-like Rum Tum Tugger, he seems to struggle at being really sexy. Eloise Kropp taps her little paws out as Jennyanndots in “The Old Gumble Cat,” but the slightly too-long number lacks its necessary charm. Jeremy Davis is pleasing as Skimbleshanks, The Railway Cat, but the train doesn’t really leave the station.

It can be very easy to be catty about Cats. It’s no Fun Home. But it can, some of the time, be quite fun.

 


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