April 10 – May 13, 2012
Max Bell Theatre
Listen for my live review of CATS on CBC’s Eyeopener on Monday April 16th at 8:20
OK – full disclosure right off the top. I am not a fan of musicals. There are some I find mildly amusing (Little Shop of Horrors and Grease) and some I even quite like (My Fair Lady and West Side Story). But generally I would rather poke my eye out with a fork than see a musical for my own sense of enjoyment.
Now let’s add to this the fact that I have an intense dislike for cats. I say this with full knowledge that I’ll probably get a slew of hate mail from my feline-loving readers. But hey, I’m trying to be honest here. Interestingly, I have been told that my dislike is very odd considering how cat-like I am. I like to groom myself, I desire attention on my terms and often I just want everyone to leave me alone. So maybe it’s a competitive thing, but regardless, if a cat is in a room I generally don’t want to be.
Therefore when I heard an all new made-in-Alberta production of Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ legendary CATS was coming to Calgary, you can imagine I was not overly enthused. The last time I saw the production was when it opened on Broadway in 1982, and while I was certainly dazzled by the sets and the costumes, the rest of the production left me wishing I had nine lives so I could forget about the one where I sat through this musical.
However, I am older, wiser and now a professional theatre critic. It’s not always about my personal tastes, or at least not completely. As much as I can, I endeavor to have my reviews objectively examine the productions for their merit and their ability to entertain and engage an audience. So, with that as my goal and my double-whammy bias clearly stated, here we go.
The first thing anyone going to see CATS should know is that it really isn’t about anything. This is truly a blink and you’ll miss the plot kind of affair. The lyrics of the musical are based on a collection of poems about cats written by T.S. Eliot to entertain his godchildren. Webber took these poems and fashioned a skeleton of a story where the audience meets all the cats in the junkyard who have gathered for their annual ball. At this yearly festival, one of the felines is chosen to be reborn as a new cat with a fresh life. One by one the cats, with their funny names and distinct personalities, are introduced through song and dance numbers until the finale when the one chosen cat is revealed. But unlike a typical musical, these numbers are not interspersed with dialogue. In what was a totally revolutionary theatrical move at the time, CATS is told completely through song and movement.
If this doesn’t strike you as a very interesting idea – it shouldn’t. CATS goes beyond simply not having a clear narrative directly into the realm of the “who cares” category. But storyline isn’t the reason anyone sees or loves this musical. The reason CATS was awarded seven Tony’s and was the second longest running musical on Broadway (it was surpassed in 2006 by Webber’s Phantom of the Opera) is the unforgettable music, the wonderfully unique sets, the transformative costumes/ makeup and the overall magical theatrical experience of the production. Or at least that’s why people went to see the original production. When it comes to Theatre Calgary’s production of CATS, unfortunately many of the positives of the show are watered down and underachieved, leaving us with far too many tiresome moments and not enough good old entertainment.
This is a shame since it all started out so promisingly with Patrick Clark’s set design that nicely captured the junkyard setting with its multi-levels and secret tunnels for the cats to prowl about. Equally impressive were the costumes which depicted different types of cats with skin tight multi-coloured and tailed unitards, manes of fur around their heads and remarkable full face makeup.
However it became quickly apparent as the individual cats were introduced and let loose to do their thing that the cast was terribly uneven with only a certain few having the singing and dancing chops to make these cats come to life. One unfortunate scene in act one paired Robert Allan and Ksneia Thurgood together as the mischievous cats Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer in a rather difficult dance sequence that neither could handle gracefully. Making matters worse was the pair’s ill-paced and partially off-key singing. While others fared better, without any real standout performances in the first act and a tediously long dance sequence leading into intermission, I heard several people grumbling their disappointment at intermission.
After a terribly long and uninteresting start to the second act featuring Gus the theatre cat, things mercifully do pick up. In a fantastically choreographed and performed scene about Skimbleshanks the railway cat, John Edward as the cat in question does a lovely job bringing cat-ness to the scene and choreographer Lisa Stevens deserves a big round of applause for her vision here. Equally interesting is the scene that follows concerning the mysterious and criminal cat Macavity. Melanie McInenly and Lindsay Croxall as Demeter and Bombalurina respectively finally bring some raw feline-ness to the stage and their singing and physicality are touches of the magic that CATS is known for.
And then of course there’s that song. The one we’ve heard a million times and the one everyone in the audience is waiting for. Grizabella, the old decrepit cat does deliver a snippet of Memory in the first act, but it isn’t until the near end that Cailin Stadnyk belts it out in full. It’s a make or break moment in the production and Stadnyk delivers it with a clear and powerful voice for sure, but it feels rushed a void of feeling. I went back to view the original version sung by the amazing Elaine Paige (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pm5w7gHEtJI) to see what was missing. Whether it was comfort in the role or the confidence to let the phrasing breathe, Stadnyk’s version lacked Paige’s emotional heft and left me disappointed, feeling like I’d been somehow cheated out of my “wow” moment.
But perhaps my biggest beef with this version of CATS was how un-cat-like the whole thing seemed. I distinctly remember being amazed at how bang-on the cast was in their embodiment of cat characteristics. Whether they were performing solos or simply sitting on the sidelines, they were constantly doing lithe and interesting cat things that gave the whole production a fantastical otherworldly feeling. Theater Calgary’s cast seemed to be content to twirl their tails and rub their heads every once in a while and rarely did I ever see a non-spotlighted cat keep the movement going in the background. Whereas in the Broadway production I truly felt like I was watching cats onstage, here I felt I was watching actors pretend to be cats on stage. If director Jaques Lemay wants to create an experience where we will gloss over the lack of story and occasional dull bits, he needs to concentrate beyond the solos and think about the stage as a whole. Only then can audiences truly see what all the fuss was about and only then can I say that I was glad to have revisited this production.
For the guys – This is spectacle more than musical, but even the lithe bodies and flirty felines won’t save you from boredom. SKIP IT
For the girls – Perhaps you’ll be more forgiving of the lack of story, but you won’t forgive the lack of wonder this production suffers from. SKIP IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Some of the music is catchy and some beautiful and yes, the set and costumes are wonderful. But the lack of a story or even a point will kill it for you. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – If you haven’t seen it, this isn’t the production to catch. If you have, leave well enough alone. SKIP IT