CATS brings new choreography to the Princess of Wales in Toronto
This year, with a feature film adaptation on the horizon, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS has become the subject of renewed public interest. Or perhaps, considering the fact that the stage show has always been popular (it’s one of the longest-running musicals of all time on both Broadway and the West End, and has frequently been revived), maybe it’s more accurate to say that new audiences have been discovering CATS (which is now, coincidentally, playing until January at the Princess of Wales theatre).
The truth is that CATS has always been a strange, esoteric, oft-poetic but frequently abstract affair, and that the new film (with its infamous trailers) are likely only magnifying what theatre-goers have known for a long time: CATS is weird. CATS is often impossible to describe, especially to those resistant to musicals in the first place. But CATS, by the same token, has always commanded large audiences, and has a unique appeal that is as mysterious and mercurial as its subject matter.
Based on the poems of T.S. Eliot about (you guessed it) a bunch of cats and their habits, CATS is both a dance show and a song cycle. Various cats stride forward to welcome the audience to the Jellicle Ball, a fancy to-do in a local junkyard where cats of a certain pedigree gather yearly to sing to the moon. At the end of the ball, we’re told, one cat will be selected for reincarnation (a play on the saying, ‘cats have nine lives’). All sorts of CATS introduce themselves, their jobs or habits or some sort of indicator of personality. We’ve got magician cats, bad boy cats, ‘cat’ burglars, cozy auntie cats, and criminal mastermind cats, among others.
Certain cats tend to steal the show–Mister Mistoffelees’ song showcases some of the best effects and exciting dancing (played with sweetness and fluid, light-footed athleticism by PJ Digaetano). Fully embracing the rock star aesthetic of the Rum Tum Tugger is former National Ballet of Canada Principle Dancer McGee Maddox, who struts around infectiously. The twisty choreography and mischievous energy of Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer is another highlight (played joyfully by Justin W. Geiss and Rose Iannaccone). Victoria’s ballet-inspired choreography is carried out with elegance by Caitlin Bond. And of course, when Keri René Fuller hits the big note in ‘Memory,’ full-body shivers rustle through the audience.
Everyone in the cast stays in character throughout, and it’s fun to glance around, even during bigger numbers, and see what the chorus or the non-active characters are getting up to in the background. There’s a sense of total commitment that CATS needs in order to feel as sincere and earnest as it does, and that spirit saturates this production nicely (McGee Maddox is particularly fun in this regard). CATS is quite adept at creating a little world in this way.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music is tuneful and has a singalong quality, even when the Eliot poems he’s working with are a bit cozier (and, occasionally, deeply British in its references). In particular, Emma Hearn and Alexa Racioppi deliver a fun, sexy ‘Macavity’ (my personal favourite song), and Brandon Michael Nase’s voice booms with Shakespearean gravitas as Old Deuteronomy. The song ‘Gus the Theatre Cat’ and subsequent ‘Pekes and the Pollicles’ also got some of the biggest laughs, in large part due to Timothy Gulan’s thespian verve as Gus (the flashes of Eliot’s racial stereotyping in this song, unfortunately, remain).
This version of the show uses some updated choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler of Hamilton fame, based on the original (and iconic) choreography of Gillian Lynne. Blankenbuehler ensures a good deal of the original choreography remains intact (Lynne’s leaping, toe-pointing, sinuous feline movements, which so captivated audiences in the 1980s, are still the highlight here). Instead, Blankenbuehler introduces some more contemporary-feeling movements into the piece here and there in a variety of styles, with stiffer bodies shifting more powerfully between movements. This risks upsetting the cohesion some–we’re leaving from Lynne’s incredibly stylized rules of movement to Blankenbuehler’s more modern sensibility–but generally I enjoyed seeing Blankenbuehler’s choreography leap out to surprise us, especially when it takes centre-stage more overtly (Mister Mistoffelees’ new dance break is so much fun).
CATS is almost always in danger of being taken too seriously or not seriously enough. It’s a fun cycle through the funny, wry poems of T.S. Eliot, which muses on how strange and unknowable cats are to humans, and seeks to ‘understand their character’ from their perspective. The allegory it presents through its feline characters–that people are perhaps prone to reject others too easily, but by the same token are capable of finding empathy within themselves–is presented simply, yes, but remains effective on an emotional level. The joy is really in the details, from the utter commitment and style of the choreography to the dedication of the performers in creating the small but cohesive world of the jellicle ball.
You probably know whether you’re the type of person who can accept stylized choreography and poetry set to music as opposed to your typical three-act structure. But if you think you can dig it, this version of CATS is a crowd-pleaser of a unique variety.
- CATS is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King St W) until January 5th, 2020.
- Plays Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30PM, Wednesdays at 1:30PM, and Saturday & Sunday 1:30PM. (Added performances: Nov. 28, Dec. 23, 24, 27, 30, 31 & Jan. 3 at 1:30PM, Dec.1 at 7:30PM).
- Run time is 2 hrs. 30 min, including intermission.
- Tickets range from 39 dollars to 174 dollar premium seats.
- AUDIENCE ADVISORY: this production employs theatrical haze/fog and strobe lighting.
- Recommended for ages five (5) and up. Babes in arms or children under the age of two (2) are not permitted in the theatre.
The North American Tour Company of CATS. Photo by Matthew Murphy.