Broadway Review: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Cats’, living junk yard museum of musical theater

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage Associate New York Critic

The revival of the 1981 musical, "Cats", opened on Broadway in July 2016 and there were two reasons why I went to see it recently. Though I’m not particularly a fan of musicals, I was still curious to check out the fourth-longest-running show in Broadway history (18 years!); the one that my mother saw in London when I was a baby. The other reason was the $40 lottery tickets available online. While taking my chances on "Hamilton" every day, I thought "Why not?" and tried for "Cats" as well. It was worth $40 without a doubt. Would I pay more than that? Probably not. Only if I were looking for a show to go to with kids, and that would be the third good reason to see it. 

The musical "Cats", directed by Trevor Nunn, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, is based on the collection of poems by T. S. Eliot, "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" (1939) and mostly consists of individual numbers, each devoted to a particular cat. The cats are from the Jellicles tribe and gathered for the Jellicles Ball, by the end of which one feline will be chosen to "come back to a new life". The plot line seems forcibly attached to an otherwise neat cat showcase, but, on the other hand, it provides us with the character of Grisabela and her hit song "Memory", which Mamie Parris performed in a rather unmemorable way.          

The busy scenic design by John Napier, who also designed costumes for the show, consists of oversized trash items and extends all the way up to the mezzanine. It looks as if a Claes Oldenburg retrospective exploded on stage and is very appealing in it’s “carotoonishness”. Oversized props, such as a giant mop, giant basketball and costumes of mice and dogs assembled from trash appear on stage as well. During some numbers, members of the ensemble climb the ladders and appear amongst the audience in both the mezzanine and the orchestra. The lighting design by Natasha Katz employs the same principle of including the audience in the action by strings of lamp bulbs reaching all the way to the back of the theater.  

The show features more than two dozens cat characters, each with their distinct personality, which is reflected through their costume, makeup and movement. The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne is a mixture of different styles: some cats are dancing ballet, others are tap dancers and so on. Musical numbers range from pop to jazz, from rock to hymn-like songs. There are plenty of charismatic cat characters played by talented performers so the show never gets dull but there is a film of tiredness on the entire production. 

It seems to me that musicals, which are just about demonstrating actors’ skills and a few old theatrical tricks, can no longer satisfy the audience. In other words, don’t go to see “Cats” if you are interested in modern musical theater. But if you want to go back in time and find out what was cool 30+ years ago, this production is just for you. I can imagine how people who have seen the musical during its original Broadway run from 1982-2000, and now have kids of their own, can be nostalgic and want to share the experience of their youth with their offspring. This opportunity is precious and I would encourage you to do so. But when the fog of nostalgia fades, what are we left with? 

“Cats” runs in the Neil Simon Theatre at 250 W. 52nd St. More information and tickets are available online.  

Photo: Matthew Murphy