The most important thing to remember, when thinking about the production Cats (currently at the Hollywood Pantages (FB)), with music by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics (mostly) by T. S. Eliot* (supplemental lyrics by Trevor Nunn), is that it is not a musical, despite everything you hear. It is a dance show, pure and simple. Go in thinking that, and you won’t be disappointed by the paper thin plot, the lack of real characters, the absence of character growth, or any silly musical theatre notions like that. If you read reviews of Cats and you find they are disappointed with the show, 9 times out of 10, you’ll find that they were going in expecting a traditional musical.
So, I’ll say it again: Cats is a dance show. And as a dance show, it is a spectacular one, with catchy if simplistic tunes that exist solely to support the dance, wonderful movement, and some lovely character vignettes that showcase characters you don’t see again as their characters. This shouldn’t be surprise, as this show was based on a collection of children’s poems, not any sort of story or novel with a through line.
I”ll repeat it a third time, because if you say it three times it must be true: Cats is a dance show. It only lacks the introduction that Bob Fosse put on his show Dancin’: “This show has no plot; it is a dance show.”.
I’m a big fan of comparing and contrasting shows, and ignoring my sojourn into Silly Symphonies at the Soraya the weekend between, I had two dance shows in a row: Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella at the Ahmanson, and Cats at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). Both celebrated and were centered around dance. One told a story without words, showing character growth. One used words to accompany the dance, but really didn’t tell a story. One used the classical repertoire; the other used more pop and rock stylings. One shows up only periodically; the other was one of the longest running shows on Broadway. Ultimately, I think I found Cats more satisfying. Perhaps it is the whole issue of accessibility. Using more modern music, and having songs to accompany the dance, ultimately made the dance itself more satisfying. The paper thin story went by the wayside, and one could enjoy the dance for what it was. With Cinderella, one had to focus on the dance and the language of the dance in order to figure out the more substantial story — and in doing so, the enjoyment of the dance itself was lost.
There are those who somehow believe there is a story line in Cats. They think it has something to do with cats auditioning to go to the Heavyside layer, and ultimately Grizabella the Glamour Cat being chosen for no reason other than she has the one new song in the show. But given you really only see the other cats do their numbers and disappear (only three remain really visible in the ensemble dancing — Mungojerrie, Rumpleteaser, and Rum-Tum-Tugger), that story isn’t really there. It is grafted on to give an excuse for the song “Memory”. Don’t think about it. This is a dance show. Enjoy the spectacle.
I must, however, note some interesting story changes in this version. At the top of Act II, we have Gus the Theatre Cat’s number. Normally, this has been “Growltiger’s Last Stand”, with the whole number with the Siamese cats that was borderline offensive when the show premiered in the 1980s (with the use of stereotypes and such — not surprising, given when and where the poems were written). The 2016 revival on Broadway replaced that number with a different poem, “The Pekes and the Pollicles”, using some but not all of the original music. The new number works, but it creates an interesting discontinuity in the “McCavity” number where a mention is made of Griddlebone — who is now no longer in the show. Some other numbers have had their tempos changed or adjusted. I believe some of these adjustments derived from the 2015 London revival.
It is also important to understand the role productions such as Cats play in the musical ecosystem. Cats is not a star vehicle. Sure, there can be a star turn for the actor playing Grizabella — they get to shamble on, sing a spectacular number, shamble off, and then in the second act, shamble back in, sing a reprise of that number, and then die on stage. But for all the other actors in the show: this is ensemble heaven. It is a training ground for dancing, singing, and background characterization. When you go into the show, look for that. Watch each individual cat and how they succeed or fail in making each cat their own character. Look at their movement. Note who they are. This is how they get their exposure: doing this show with a paper-thin plot but spectacular movement and characterization exercises. For many of them, you’ll see them grow over the years into musical or dance mainstays.
But there is that one problem of identifying the performers. The individual cats are not all named in the show, so how do you know who is who? These answer is that the Wikipedia page provides a list of all the cats, their names, and a description of their costumes. This is a must, and should be in every program, because the individual cats are never introduced in the show — and other than the actors, the audience has no way of knowing who is performing whom (unless they happen to have done the show before). I think providing this listing would be a courtesy to the actors/dancers, as then they can be properly credited for their outstanding work.
I’ll note that this production was directed by Trevor Nunn, with choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne. I’ll also note that the entire performance team was strong, and the dancing was just a joy to behold. Writing this the night after the show, there are a few performances I’d like to highlight:
- Caitlin Bond (FB)’s Victoria (the white kitten) is just amazing. Her moves and her talent are just wonderful. I really enjoyed watching her.
- Rose Iannaccone (FB)’s Rumpelteazer was also fun to watch. Small, lithe, and with some spectacular moves — as well as great facial expressions. My eyes kept being drawn to her.
- Emily Jeanne Phillips (FB)’s Jennyanydots did a spectacular tap number. I tried to recognize her elsewhere in the show, but couldn’t.
- PJ DiGaetano (FB)’s swung into Mr. Mistoffelees, and did an outstanding job with it. DiGaetano normally portrays Coricopat.
- Keri Rene Fuller (FB)’s has essentially a “walk-on” as Grizabella — she doesn’t really do all that much dancing. She does, however, get the powerhouse number in the show: “Memory”, and she does wonderful with that number.
- Timothy Gulan (FB)’s does good as Asparagus, the Theatre Cat — I liked his characterizations and facial expression. I was a bit less taken with his Bustopher Jones.
- Erin Chupinsky (FB) swinging in as Demeter, and Charlotte O’Dowd (FB) swinging in as Bombalurina, did a wonderful job on “McCavity” with some spectacular dancing.
- McGee Maddox (FB) gave a strong turn as Rum Tum Tugger/Bill Bailey. A different swagger in the characterization than I’ve seen before, but fun to watch.
- Marian Rieves (FB)’s Cassandra is one of the ensemble cats that catches your eye. A seemingly Siamese shorthair (at least she has a more slinky costume than the other cats), she has wonderfully lithe movement. Her tumbling runs were incredible.
- Ahren Victory (FB)’s Sillabub is the cat that sings with Fuller’s Grizabella, and does a spectacular job of it.
The other performers were strong dancers, but other aspects of their performances either didn’t stick out in my mind, or I couldn’t identify their character well enough to comment. Other cast members were: Phillip Deceus (FB) [Alonzo]; Lexie Plath (FB) [normally Bombalurina, but out last night]; Justin W. Geiss (FB) [Swing, who I’m guessing swung in for Coricocat]; Liz Schmitz (FB) [normally Demeter, but out last night]; Kaitlyn Davidson (FB) [Jellylorum]; Tion Gaston (FB) [normally Mistoffelees, but out last night]; Tony d’Alelio (FB) [Mungojerrie]; Dan Hoy (FB) [normally Munkustrap, but out last night]; Tyler John Logan (FB) [Plato / McCavity]; Anthony Michael Zas (FB) [Pouncival]; Ethan Saviet (FB) [Skimbleshanks]; Halli Toland (FB) [Tantomile]; Devin Neilson (FB) [Tumblebrutus]; Brandon Michael Nase (FB) [Victor / Old Deuteronomy]; Maria Failla (FB), Adam Richardson (FB), Tricia Tanguy (FB), Andy Michael Zimmermann (FB) [Cat’s Chorus]; Zachary S. Berger (FB) [swinging in as Munkustrap]; Nick Burrage (FB) [Swing]; and Laura Katherine Kaufman (FB) [Swing].
The Cats orchestra was conducted by Eric Kang (FB), who was also musical director. Other members of the orchestra (🌴 indicates local) were: Evan Roider (FB) [Assoc. Music Director, Keyboard3]; Luke Flood (FB) [Keyboard1]; David Robison (FB) [Keyboard2]; Garrett Hack (FB) [Reed1]; Dave Stambaugh (FB) [Reed2]; Ralph Agresta (FB) [Guitar]; John Toney (FB) [Bass]; Aaron Nix (FB) [Drums / Percussion]; Jeff Driskill (FB) 🌴 [Flute / Clarinet / Tenor Sax]; Sean Franz (FB) 🌴 [Clarinet/Soprano Sax/Bari Sax]; Mike Abraham (FB) 🌴 [Guitar (Electric, Steel String Acoustic, Banjo, Nylon String Acoustic)]; Dan Lutz (FB) 🌴[Bass (Electric, Fretless)]; William Malpede 🌴 [Keyboard Sub]. Orchestra support: Eric Heinly (FB) 🌴 [Orchestra Contractor]; Kristen Blodgette [Music Supervisor]; Brian Taylor (FB) [Assoc. Music Supervisor]; Stuart Andrews [Keyboard Programmer]; and Talitha Fehr [Music Coordinator].
Turning to the production and creative side of the equation: Alas, nothing can top the original scenic design in the Century City Shubert theatre, where the entire theatre was transformed into a larger-than-life junkyard. This is a tour, which constrained John Napier‘s scenic design primarily to stage, with a few rows of lights. It was still a junkyard; just not as immersive. The audience did, however, get to see Napier’s design in another area — the costumes — when the actors came into the audience. Still, even here he was constrained by the original, as he had to keep the character designs within the constraints of the original design. Still, the impact of the actors going in the audience should not be discounted; Marian Rieves relates the story of going into the audience in the Pantages and making a little black girls day by showing what she could be when she grows up. Theatre does change lives. Where there has been a significant change since the original production is in the technology, and that is no where more apparent than in Natasha Katz‘s lighting design. Lightweight LEDs have transformed the theatre, from the eyes on stage, to Mr. Mistoffelees’ spectacular costume, to the changing colors of the light strands, to the on-stage flashlights. Katz’s design makes use of this well. Victoria Tinsman (FB)’s hair and makeup design is a key part of these characters, and what I’m sure was a time-consuming job paid off well in their looks. About the only weakness was Mick Potter‘s sound design: one of the characters had a very muffled microphone (I want to say Alonzo), and my wife noticed a number of balance problems. As an aside, I’m so looking forward to productions at the Dolby Theatre, because it should not be plagued with the muffled sound that is endemic to the Pantages’ rococo design. Knitting by Jo Thompson (Leg and Arm warmers) and Marian Grealish (Skimbleshanks / Victor). One other key creative credit for this show: Neuro Tour provided the physical therapy, which I’m sure these dancers depend upon. Other production and creative credits: Chrissie Cartwright (FB) [Assoc. Director / Choreographer]; Kim Craven (FB) [Assoc. Choreographer]; Ellenore Scott (FB) and Lili Froehlich (FB) [Asst. Choreographers]; John Clancy [New Dance Sequences for selected numbers]; Nick Burrage (FB) and Erin Chupinsky (FB) [Dance Captains]; Tara Rubin Casting (FB) [Casting]; Abigail Hahn (FB) [Assoc. Costume Designer]; Donovan Dolan (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; J. Andrew Blevins (FB) [Stage Manager]; Laura C. Nelson (FB) [Asst. Stage Manager]; Aaron Quintana (FB) [Company Manager]; Justin Coffman (FB) [Asst. Company Manager]; Troika Entertainment LLC [Tour Manager].
Cats continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through March 24. Tickets are available through the Pantages website; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar or TodayTix. After Los Angeles, the Cats tour moves on to Seattle WA. If you like theatrical dance, it is worth seeing. If you are looking for a real musical with a plot and deep characterizations, and a storyline that means something, pass. Cats is a dance show, as I’ve said before.
PS: Let’s start the rumor: Cats in Yiddish. Ketz anyone?
* ETA: Something I never knew: T.S. Eliot was antisemitic. Luckily, I don’t think he is making the big bucks off the musical, nor do I think there are any such references in this work, but it does make “Growltiger’s Last Stand” even more problematic.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Next weekend brings Matilda at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) on Saturday, followed by Ada and the Engine at Theatre Unleashed (FB) (studio/stage) on Sunday. March was to conclude with us back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that date had to chance so that we could attend the wedding of our daughter’s best friend, who is a wonderful young woman.
April starts with Steel Magnolias at Actors Co-op (FB) and the MoTAS Men’s Seder. During the week, we are back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for our rescheduled performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The next weekend has a hold for OERM. April will also bring Fiddler on the Roof at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and the annual visit to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Looking to May, only four shows are currently programmed: Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB); The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB); and Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Because some of those shows are mid-week, two weekends are currently open (but will likely be programmed as press announcements are received). June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB).
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.