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Critic's notebook: At long last, 'Cats'

March 10, 2010 |  3:30 pm

Friends, I have a confession to make. No, I’m not writing this from rehab. I actually just returned from the Pantages, where — this isn’t easy to admit — I saw “Cats” for the first time.
The only thing more embarrassing than a theater critic admitting that he’s never seen this 1980s blockbuster is a theater critic bragging that he’s seen it multiple times. Well, I can safely say, having finally experienced the chorus line of Jellicle cats strutting their stuff to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s twinkling melodies, that there’s no danger in my becoming a groupie.

But how could I have missed this feline phenomenon? Me, an honest-to goodness cat-person, always bunking with a few lovable rescues and unable to resist preparing a wet-and-dry banquet for any stray sneaking into my backyard. More to the point, how could I have turned a blind eye to a show that set the touristy tone for Broadway for more than a generation?

Cats 2 No, I wasn’t afraid of becoming a cliché—the shopping-bag-laden theatergoer eager to consume some culture in a postprandial state of mind. But I will admit that the notion of spending an evening watching adults masquerade as longhair and shorthair varieties did strike me as faintly ludicrous.

Somehow the show’s T.S. Eliot pedigree — his “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” is the light-verse source from which these Persians, Calicoes and Siamese spring — wasn’t enough to counteract the work’s schlocky reputation for me. But though my taste runs to more challenging dramatic fare, I found myself purring in anticipation of losing my “Cats” virginity.

What struck me about the show (directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford, following Trevor Nunn’s original direction) is how little it demands of its audience. Diversion is dispensed without the harassment of plot — no mental exertion is required. Senses are tickled by special effects, dance routines that are a cross between Bob Fosse and London music hall, and a pastiche score that samples styles (Rod Stewart, Puccini, Henry Mancini) the way owners of finicky pets will try different brands of food to ensure their loved one doesn’t starve to death.

The show also has Eliot’s refined vocabulary (though slightly garbled acoustics made me wonder if “ineffable” was really “inedible”), a vivacious staging that lends a Vegas touch to the cast’s raucous aisle-roaming and a lilting sentimental blockbuster in “Memory,” a song that my YouTube research confirmed is virtually impossible to get wrong (though I’ll take Barbra Streisand’s version over Celine Dion’s any day). The cunning commercialism of the stagecraft is so Reagan-era, I half expected to find “Dynasty” on TV when I returned home.

While I'm clearly no expert in the "Cats" department, I'd call this production assured in a generic way. Anastasia Lange may not have Betty Buckley’s storied stage presence but her lovely voice fills the large house with a sinuous rendition of “Memory,” and the cadre of distinctive Toms surrounding her acquitted themselves in numbers that could admittedly use some tightening and fine-tuning. 
But the tackiness of some of the stage effects (flashing lights and fog, in particular) left me cringing. Snobbery isn't the issue. Before I was a theater critic, I was the son of Broadway theatergoers who wouldn’t dream of missing a Webber spectacular. Until the acclaimed Lincoln Center Theater revival of “South Pacific” (coming to the Ahmanson this spring), “The Phantom of the Opera” was unquestionably my father’s favorite show. (“It’s no ‘Phantom’ ” was his version of a major thumbs-down.) 

There may be no accounting for taste, but instances of bad taste are still worth pointing out, if only to avoid others from following suit. Not that anyone can travel back in time and prevent “Cats” from ushering in an era of bloated musicals equipped with expensive aircraft or, even more grandiosely, a rampaging chandelier. 

Let's look at the bright side, however: Without “Cats,” Broadway might never have welcomed “The Lion King,” a far more radically inventive kitty descendant. And compared with the vacuous jukebox craze that has held musical theater hedge-fund managers (euphemistically known as producers) captive for the last decade, Webber’s moonlight-filled animal husbandry can seem breathtaking in its originality.
OK, one last confession: I actually did see a portion of “Cats” ages ago in college, though I have only the blurriest recollection of the experience. For years, I assumed it was a kind of buried memory, a flickering trauma of the sort that Ingrid Bergman helped Gregory Peck retrieve in “Spellbound.”

Turns out, the incident was a lot more banal. A friend who worked evenings as a telemarketer flogging theater subscriptions received complimentary nose-bleed seats to the Winter Garden, the show’s longtime New York home. None of us having much interest in seeing “Cats,” we were a little reckless in the happy hour that preceded our theater jaunt. Long story short: The spectacle of grown-ups gallivanting in cat get-ups is positively hairball producing in a 20-year-old with a spinning head.

I’m pretty sure we fled before the first-act finale of “Memory.” But I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that we wound up serenading the feral denizens of the city as we stumbled in the wee hours to our beds. 

--Charles McNulty
Photos from the the National Tour of "Cats." Credit: © 2008, G CREATIVE