If you asked me how I prepared to watch “CATS” at the Hippodrome Theater last night, I’d answer honestly—with a stiff drink in hand. This was due in large part to seeing the original show back in the early ’90s as a child.
Growing up, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend Broadway shows with my grandmother. It was something that I looked forward to each time I went and it usually was an incredible experience. Except for “CATS.” I don’t remember many specifics, but what I do remember is a lot of nightmarish pelvic thrusting and creepy feline-esque features and mannerisms.
To put it simply, those dang cats were just plain scary-looking.
I also remember the exact moment the original Grizabella—played by Elaine Paige—came into view. Her old and mangy appearance scared me so much that I couldn’t make it through another act. I bolted at intermission to cry my eyes out in the bathroom.
Yes, humans in cat form were that terrifying to me as an 8-year-old. Honestly, If I had my way back then, the show’s slogan would have been changed from “Now and Forever” to “Not Now, Not Ever.”
After 18 years on Broadway and seven Tony Awards, one would assume “CATS” has lived out its nine lives. But in 2016 the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, based on a collection of poems by T.S. Elliot, came meowing back into our lives with its revival and hasn’t stopped since.
It’s now 2020, and we are still seeing a bunch of lithe bodies and the anthropomorphic antics of actors on stage, along with those crazy furry costumes—complete with signature leg warmers—that look like extras from one of Jane Fonda’s old aerobic workout videos.
The first time around, I didn’t understand the plot. Now that I am older and wiser, I think I get it. It tells the tale of a bunch of cats called the Jellicles gathering for their annual ball to decide which cat among them deserves reincarnation. They introduce themselves to us and the night they make the “Jellicle choice,” when an older cat will use up its ninth life and float on up to feline heaven.
While I’m still not completely sold on the premise, there were a few things that I loved about this updated vision. For one, the choreography by Hamilton’s Andy Blankenbuehler lit up the house. The only part that landed wrong was when the cats came down the theater’s aisles to sing and dance right to the audience. Their glowing green cat eyes prowling up and down the aisles did a better job of unsettling us than enticing us to join in on the fun.
The set design was also a magical display of creativity; there were dazzling costumes, some impressive accent lighting and even some cool blackout moments.
And I have to admit that a lot of credit is due to the touring company’s talented cast of singers and dancers, who took Webber’s famous musical score and brought the songs to life. They seemingly danced and sang effortlessly throughout the musicals two-and-a-half-hour run.
The “Rum Tum Tugger” hip-thrusting number had a lot of familiar elements to it, and I enjoyed the character Bombalurina, played by Emma Hearn. Her solo in “Macavity, the Mystery Cat” was impressive, and she doesn’t lack when it comes to self-confidence and sensuality. Victoria, a.k.a. the white cat, also caught my attention. Primarily a dance role with no solo singing parts, her work demands extensive ballet training and flexibility, and the actor Caitlin Bond did both with ease.
Lastly, I have to give props to the underdog of the show, Grizabella, played by Keri Rene’ Fuller. She gave a heartrending performance to offset the sometimes relentlessly peppy vibe of the show. When you get to her rendition of “Memory,” she acquits herself with tragic grace, literally bathing in the moonlight. And, at the exact right moment, she hits that pivotal E-flat note without a hitch.
In all, “CATS” was an impressive musical. Even a dog lover like me found things to like, so if you like cats, well, then this one is really for you.
“CATS” will run at the Hippodrome through Jan. 26.