I saw Cats on Broadway once, at the Winter Garden. I couldn’t tell you the year, nor even the decade, since it ran and ran and ran. In fact, I remember very little about it other than it was a matinee, with lots of screaming children (fewer after intermission). Also, that I couldn’t really follow the story.
Oh, yes—I remember one more thing… which, ironically, is “Memory,” the song that for many of us cemented our sense of Cats, um, “Now and Forever.”
Ah, but despite that ubiquitous ad campaign, it only felt like forever. By 1990, Cats had become a punchline in both Six Degrees of Separation and Angels in America—the gist is to be a fan is synonymous with being, theatrically-speaking, a rube.
No one would dispute the show’s extraordinary original success—but part of that astonishment is Cats itself, which, despite highbrow source material (T. S. Eliot, if you please), is opaque and nonsensical. Just sample the opening number, where lyrics like:
Because jellicles are and jellicles do,
Jellicles do and jellicles would,
Jellicles would and jellicles can,
Jellicles can and jellicles do.
… are repeated ad infinitum. Honestly, I’m not sure anyone could successfully explain what Cats is all about.
OK, there’s Grizabella. It’s a short role, but one that makes a major impression, and—shortly after singing “Memory”—appropriately, she gets one of the truly unforgettable exits in theater history, flying off into the heavens on a tire. Really, the central gay Cats question is, of course, “who was your first Grizabella?” My one and only was the late, great Laurie Beechman. (If you can’t remember yours, I regret to inform you that you’re straight.)
Yes, Grizabella could make a star out of almost anybody. Not here, though—on opening night, Keri René Fuller was mostly going through the motions, at least until her screlting finale of “Memory,” which she delivered full-throttle but too obviously calculated for maximum effect.
Which leads us to a secondary problem—the revival isn’t very good. Despite reassembling much of the original creative team (including director Trevor Nunn and set/costume designer John Napier) and bringing in some new heavy-hitters (choreographer Andy Blackenbuehler and lighting designer Natasha Katz), this touring Cats has the dispiriting, desultory feel of a production that’s got very little to say. It’s better in Act II, which has some flashy dancing—but even this looks more like a Las Vegas floor show than theater.
Could Cats ever work again?
I’d say maybe. The source material is what it is, but hey—it clicked before. What might happen in the hands of a brand new creative team, who would give the show an entirely different treatment, making us think anew about it? Instead, what happens here, probably predictably, is mostly a tame and scaled-down riff on the original.
I wonder—what audience is this intended for? Now-much-older fans who remember Cats fondly as part of their youth? Their own children? As seen here, I can’t imagine the show will please either camp. Its various tweakings and rethinkings will disappoint the faithful, who want it to look exactly as it always did (“Now and Forever”—remember?). New viewers, on the other hand, are likely to roll their eyes at the leftover clichés.
Speaking of camp, it occurred to me that one valuable lesson here is defining the difference between camp and kitsch. There are elements of both to Cats, but while the former involves charm and humor, the latter—which here sadly dominates—is merely mass-produced schlock.
Cats plays through June 30that the Forrest Theater. For more information, visit the Kimmel Center website.