Theater Review: The Persistence of ‘Memory,’ and the Return of Cats

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Photo: Matthew Murphy/O&M Co.

Cats was always divinely snarkable, beginning with its provenance. How could anyone look at the morally knotty and verbally profound oeuvre of T. S. Eliot and say, 'Yes, let’s make a musical out of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, that collection of dorky ailurophile doggerel he extemporized for his godchildren'? Yet that’s what Andrew Lloyd Webber, a fan of the material since youth, chose to do, setting the faintly embarrassing adventures of Rum Tum Tugger, Mungojerrie, Jennyanydots, and the rest to melody and, with the director Trevor Nunn, arranging the results to suggest a story. Not much of one, though: Eliot’s estate forbade the use of any text not by Eliot. Cats is therefore more of a song cycle or feline vaudeville than a work of musical theater; one skit or riff is followed by another, with little holding the compilation together except whatever suggestion of transcendence a production can squeeze out of moody lighting, awesome special effects, and “dramatic” performances. The wan revival that opens tonight at the Neil Simon at least gets the lighting (by Natasha Katz) right. 

Not that Cats was ever very powerful. When the original opened on Broadway in 1982, it seemed to be a show that was desperately squelching a laugh. What, after all, was actually happening? Human chorus boys and girls were pretending to be tabbies and toms by rolling around on the floor, creeping on all fours, tap dancing, doing chains of fouettés, and posing with all their weight on one leg and the other beveled away. (The original choreography was by Gillian Lynne, a former star of the Royal Ballet.) But please note that cats do not actually dance. They do not (as in one number) imitate dogs or (as in another) perform magic tricks. They do not recall their former glories or sing feelingly of loss. Because this was all played straight and lofty, it was too turgid to provide mere cartoon amusement, and yet as a means of understanding or appreciating feline life, it was a total nonstarter.

The opposite proposition was just as absurd. “Cats are very much like you and me,” Eliot wrote (and Lloyd Webber borrowed), but really, not so much. Or have I missed the relevance, in human life, of the show’s filament of a plot? Which is, in toto, as follows: On the night of their annual ball, two dozen junkyard felines assemble so that one may be selected for the privilege of rising at midnight to the “Heaviside Layer,” there to undergo reincarnation. (It might have been called Jesus Cat Superstar.) The obvious Christian imagery and actual science aside, what are we to make of that? Nunn says the subject is forgiveness, and certainly you can see why he’d want to believe it. (He has a lot to answer for.) But for the rest of us, it’s a parable without a reference. In any case, it’s not exactly an engine of narrative suspense, because Grizabella, the faded “glamour cat,” has been lurking around the edges of the stage all evening, looking half-dead already and warbling her one big number as if auditioning for the resurrection.

That big number, “Memory,” is not original to Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats; it was suggested by a phrase from a draft of another Eliot poem, turned into a lyric by Nunn, and assigned to the invented character of Grizabella to pull the libretto together. (You hear bits of it many times.) That it was eminently extractable, having almost no function except to bind the silliness of the rest of the show with a glob of Puccini-esque pathos, is probably why it became one of the last theater songs to cross over to pop success until Hamilton recently reopened the bridge. But unlike songs from Hamilton, it didn’t need you to understand English. Nor did the show as a whole; in fact, it probably helped if you didn’t. The secret to Cats, for all its exalted lineage, lay in its suppressed, lowbrow hysteria. It anticipated and exemplified the vapid, overstated American Idol emotive style that would soon become dominant both onstage and off. Early Grizabellas like Elaine Paige, Betty Buckley, and Laurie Beechman — all theater creatures — were able to tame the loud, rangy bombast, making it seem both intimate and anthemic and thus providing the show with the suggestion of a heart. Unfortunately, in this production, the season-three X Factor winner Leona Lewis brings to the underwritten role only a few unsubtle top notes, which she offers ritually, as if they were dead mice. 

No greater ambition seems to have animated the revival as a whole. Other than Katz’s spectacular lighting, the design and staging are at best equivalent to the original’s, even after decades of adjustments and second thoughts. (The license plate on the giant wreck of a car in the midst of John Napier’s junkyard set says "NAP 70," indicating that this is the 70th iteration of his original design.) The addition of a flashing LED costume for Mister Mistoffelees’s big showstopper, well-danced by Ricky Ubeda, adds nothing; the ascent to the Heaviside Layer on the giant tire is ho-hum. And though some elements remain impressive — the choral arrangements and massed singing are excellent — others have suffered from what can only be chintziness. The shrinking of the always synthesizer-heavy orchestration to eliminate five brass players is particularly unfortunate; transcendence never sounded so thin.

To be fair, Cats is not quite as bad as cultural elites liked to suggest; there were far worse shows during its 18-year run. But Cats was both pretentious and déclassé, dragging the musical form down from its recent supposed glory just as it dragged Eliot down from Prufrock to Pouncival. This was, after all, the megahit that opened the door for the invasion of European pop operas that all but smothered the native product for two decades. Seeing it 34 years later, in a Broadway environment that has recently produced the likes of Hamilton and Fun Home, is to experience something milder and less dangerous than it once seemed. It’s not so much feline as bovine, as if Nunn and Lloyd Webber had spliced in some genetic material from another Eliot poem of the same period: “Cows.” 

* * *

There’s a delightful Cats joke in Barrington Stage’s production of The Pirates of Penzance, when the bumbling buccaneers arrive to pounce on their foes “with catlike tread.” In fact, there are delightful jokes throughout, even beyond the timeless ones built into the 1879 operetta by Gilbert (words) and Sullivan (music). Directed by John Rando, with musical staging by Joshua Bergasse, this production, based on the Public Theater’s 1981 hit version, is just about everything you could ask for from a summer theater romp. There’s a would-be Errol Flynn of a Pirate King courtesy of Will Swenson, Scarlett Strallen’s ripely camp Mabel, a pair of bewitchingly tight pants on Kyle Dean Massey as Frederic, and, in Alex Gibson, a demented Gumby of a police sergeant. (Bergasse’s dances for the police are exceptionally funny.) Were this Pirates to come to New York at some point, as the Rando-Bergasse-Barrington On the Town did two years ago, it would want more discipline — and more instruments in the pit; the orchestra in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, has a mere eight players and sounds like it. But, unlike Cats, Pirates is a show we need to revisit regularly, a model of silliness that is also tender and witty and accessibly melodic and as surefire and confident as a cannon. Now and forever, indeed.

Cats is at the Neil Simon Theatre.

The Pirates of Penzance is at Barrington Stage Company through August 13.

*A version of this article appears in the August 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.