Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megamusical “CATS” has had a strange second life after its original run at The Winter Garden Theater on Broadway. From a revival starring Leona Lewis, to these strange anti-smoking PSAs, to the Cronenbergian horror that is the 2019 film, it’s astounding how this musical that shows its age can continue to keep thriving. However, what makes the strongest case for this show to keep going on tour across the country and perform internationally is the heart at the center of the story. “CATS” may be a dazzling spectacle of dance and acrobatics, but its true driving force is the, at times confusing, narrative. But what does the production bring to the Broward Center?
Based on the poems of T.S. Elliot, the show entails the night of the Jellicle Ball, a contest wherein a tribe of cats known as the Jellicle Cats compete to see which cat gets to ascend to the Heaviside Layer to be reincarnated to a new life. There’s whimsical cats like Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat and Jennyanydots in the running, but at the center of the narrative is the ostracized cat Grizabella, the Glamour Cat. Grizabella ran away from the Jellicles years ago to join the central antagonist of the show, the master criminal, Macavity the Mystery Cat but now returns to reconcile to get her chance at a second life.
“CATS” was crucial as one of the first shows to introduce the world to the megamusical, usually characterized by large ensembles, spectacular effects, and the monumental songs that gave way for shows like Les Miserables and Hamilton. As the show has run for literal decades, this tour production utilized a small ensemble of a rock band with three keyboards and two woodwind musicians. One extremely mild praise I have for the 2019 film is that it did attempt to bring some new orchestrations to the score as the sound of 1980s MIDI programming makes the show far less timeless than say, another Lloyd Webber show like Phantom of the Opera that pulls from a classical sound. This production of “CATS” shines when it lets its non-digital instruments bring a level of expressiveness to the sound to properly underscore the performers on stage. While the show is nothing short of massive with its ensemble cast, there are reductions to some of the score including some lyric changes. A notable change in this production comes in the second act which changes the “play within a show” where “Growltiger’s Last Stand” is replaced by “The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles” which originally was such a lull in the pace of the 1998 filmed version of “CATS”
While I did manage to catch the show in Tampa at the Straz Center last December, some of the lead actors had changed from this iteration. Nick Davis plays the emcee for the evening as Munkustrap in a vocally and physically demanding role, playing the narrator with charm having only taken on the show weeks ago in Orlando. I suspect Davis will only come into the role more and more as the show goes on. Jose Raul Mangual (they/them) brought fierce, sensual energy in their portrayal of The Rum Tum Tugger with not only the dance skills but acting chops to command the audience with undeniable charisma. Praise also has to be given to actors who play dual roles like John Anker Bow who gets two feature songs as Bustopher Jones and Asparagus creating two entirely different entities on stage and Indalecio De Jesus Valentin as Victor/Old Duteronomy who may not have the most dance to perform but help provide everything from comic relief to sage wisdom.
However, the true acting standout, partially due to the nature of the character, is Tayler Harris as Grizabella. This role stands out the most and has a tall order to fill the shoes of actresses like Heather Headley and Elaine Paige. The emotional crux of the show weighs on the performer to convey the range of emotion the character endures. From “The Jellicle Ball” where the update to the book has Grizabella desperately trying to perform the intense choreography of the Jellicles but in her old age, no longer has the range of movements. Meanwhile, being ostracized by the older cats, she is chased away during the massive number before the introduction of the song “Memory” to end Act 1. The Act 2 climax of “Memory” displays the full range of Harris’ acting abilities that reach deep into the pain the character endures and the cry of “touch me” is expressed with such a profound sorrow that conveys that the actress is wise beyond her years. While the 2019 film attempted to find this central emotional core and bring it into the forefront, the stage show continues to compel audiences with an utterly human story beneath the silliness of cats through an effective book by Trevor Nunn and minimal use of special effects.
Grizabella’s inability to move conveys the show’s use of dance or physical touch as the language of the Jellicle Cats, and this show is loaded with Gillian Lynne’s signature choreographic genius. While motifs are established through the music of the show to create the characters, some actors truly bring their characters to life with skillful movements. Even in one of the front rows, I was astonished at how precisely each actor moves in near silence. Performances such as Hyla Mayrose Perillo’s balletic Victoria to the tap skills of Michelle E. Carter, the entire ensemble, brings so much liveliness to the show with an eclectic score that is entirely sung-through.
The set design by Jimmy Napier, even in a touring production, has the scale that establishes the world of the Jellicles with the whimsical props that utilize the audience’s imagination to create trains, dogs and cockroaches (sans horrifying child faces) in the scrapyard. Victoria Tinsman’s bold stage makeup and punk rock hair design is integral to the visual characterizations of the cats along with Napier’s signature skintight catsuits that are as visually striking from up close to the back of the house. One criticism of the show I might have is the stage lighting fills that have the tendency to obscure the makeup and reveal human faces at times.
Fundamentally, “CATS” is meant to be seen with a level of playfulness and naivete to let the human drama shine beneath it. This show does a fantastic job of keeping the authorial intent of Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn alive, with an endearing quality that makes it a thoroughly enjoyable family show. To witness this musical, you will understand what has made and keeps “CATS” one of the biggest musical spectacles for the past decades. With dazzling dance sequences, a heartwarming tale of forgiveness, and unforgettable tunes, this is not a show to be missed. “CATS” is running now at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts for a limited engagement until Sunday, April 10th. Tickets are available here starting at $35.