Musical theater requires a suspension of disbelief. Letting go of logic and reality is essential if you’re going to buy into a world where cowboys or nuns spontaneously break into song and choreographed dance routines. But sometimes musical theater can ask too much of the audience, which brings us to “Cats.”
“Cats” appeared in a limited engagement last week at the Fox Theatre as part of the national tour’s 25th year. The incredible success of “Cats” is well documented, from its quarter-century on the road to only recently being dethroned as the longest-running show in Broadway history. Yet, in spite of all this, I realized as I took my seat that I really knew surprisingly little about the musical.
I knew the performers would be dressed as cats. I knew this was a creation of Broadway juggernaut Andrew Lloyd Webber and that favorite St. Louis son T.S. Eliot was somehow involved. I also knew the production featured the famous song “Memory.” As it turned out, the reason this was all I knew about “Cats” is because this is all there is to know about “Cats.”
Before I get too far into this, I feel it’s important to point out that I have no beef with the traveling production that graced the stage of the Fox. They delivered as fine a version of the musical that could possibly be presented and were guilty only of giving the people what they wanted. That said, “Cats” has to be the most ridiculous production to find success in the history of musicals.
“Cats” has no plot to speak of, only one good song (the aforementioned “Memory”) and features scenes so remarkable in their goofiness that it almost felt like a parody of itself.
I feel that the blame for “Cats” is three-fold. The first part falls to Eliot and his book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” a collection of poems on which the musical is based. Each poem is basically a description of a particular cat and his idiosyncrasies and mysterious qualities. All of which boils down to observations no more profound than a “Garfield” Sunday comic strip. Of course, we can’t heap too much blame on Eliot as he wrote these poems around the time that he was living in London while it was being bombed to rubble by the Nazis and his wife had just been committed to a mental institution. Writing lame poems about cats should be considered an acceptable distraction.
The second tier of the blame goes to Webber who thought that setting these lame poems to music and straining to force them into some cohesive narrative was indeed a good idea.
The final, and largest heap of blame, goes squarely on the shoulders of the thousands upon thousands of theatergoers in the past who have ensured that “Cats” has, and will, continue to boggle the minds of theater critics around the world. Come on people, I know for a fact that for all those years on Broadway there was always something better playing. Could you just not get tickets?
Yet even at its most ludicrous, the stage will present much that is redeemable. The costuming was impressive, as was the dancing, especially by Ryan Patrick Farrell as Mistoffelees who thrilled the audience during the number “Mr. Mistoffelees.” There were also some fine character performances, including Dave Schoonover, who injected some life and laughs into this surprisingly humorless musical as Rum Tum Tugger, and Philip Peterson who brought the gravitas as Old Deuteronomy.
The production even actually provided a “wow” moment in Act II during “Memory” (which is memorable as the only song not mentioning cats) when the stunning voice of Angie Smith as Grizabella practically blows the fur off the rest of the cast.
I realize that my railing against “Cats” is pretty futile since this die was cast long ago and the final verdict has been rendered by countless awards and millions of dollars. That said, I suspect that sitting at home watching your own cat cough up a hairball might ultimately be just as entertaining.