Leona_Lewis_as_Grizabella_in_CATS_on_Broadway_--_Photo_by_Matthew_Murphy

‘CATS’: British pop sensation Leona Lewis as Grizabella. Photo: Matthew Murphy

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stars_3.5

 

 

CATS
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot
Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler
Based on original choreography by Gillian Lynne
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Neil Simon Theatre
250 W. 52nd Street
877-250-2929, http://www.catsthemusical.com/broadway/

 

By Scott Harrah

Back on Broadway after a 16-year absence, this spectacular yet scaled-down reboot of the Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-hit will definitely thrill Cats aficionados, but may irk some purists. The show, first mounted on Broadway in 1982, was one of the original British import musical phenomena of the era and ran for 18 years at the Winter Garden here in New York. The fact that it’s now playing at the much smaller Neil Simon makes it obvious the show isn’t as extravagant as the original, but it’s still a visual feast, thanks to John Napier’s elaborate kitty junkyard set, the famous 1980s aerobics-style cat suits and updated choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (based on Gillian Lynne’s original, ballet-style movements).

This reviewer never saw the original, but most of us have at least seen vintage footage of Betty Buckley on the Tony Awards singing “Memory” or have heard the soundtrack, rented the DVD or watched snippets on YouTube.

Although hardly Mr. Lloyd Webber’s best musical, Cats is a classic regardless. It’s easy to see why. Although there really isn’t any plot, the action revolves around T.S. Eliot’s “Jellicle Cats” in a junkyard, each telling their story in song, and everything is simplistic enough for kids from age three to 93 to comprehend. This is a show for the whole family, and most kids love cats, so it never needed a strong narrative. Still, this remains a musical that often draws “love it” or “hate it” reactions from audiences. It has none of the soaring, haunting melodies of Mr. Lloyd Webber’s far superior works The Phantom of the Opera and Evita except for one song that is now one of the most renowned show tunes of the past three decades: “Memory,” of course.

This brings us to the controversial casting of British pop singer Leona Lewis as Grizabella, the aging “glamour cat.” At age 31, the singer, famous for such hits as “Bleeding Love,” seems too young and chic to be convincing as the worn-out Grizabella, a cat yearning for her lost youth. Her voice is good, and her range is perfect for pop but not always powerful enough for the live stage. In addition, Ms. Lewis’s costume is far more elegant and stylish than the one worn by Betty Buckley (and Elaine Paige in the original London production).

This 21st century version is mostly notable for the first-rate performances of many other cast members, including Emily Pynenburg as Cassandra; Christine Cornish Smith as Bombalurina; Tyler Hanes as Bill Bailey/Rum Tum Tugger; Kim Faure as Demeter; Andy Huntington Jones as Munkustrap; Quentin Earl Darrington as Old Deuteronomy; and Christopher Gurr as Gus, the Theatre Cat. Director Trevor Nunn brings out the best in nearly all the actors and makes the cast gel cohesively.

One wonders if Mr. Nunn’s revival might have been more powerful had he put a modern, fresh spin on the show. Perhaps different costumes (although the Lycra leotards are the show’s trademark) or some tweaks to the set might have given this Cats a different kind of new life. However, gimmicky revivals almost never work (think of all those John Doyle retoolings of Stephen Sondheim shows in which actors also played instruments), so Mr. Nunn was wise not to tamper too much with Mr. Lloyd Webber’s winning formula. It is debatable whether this production will win over new generations, but if you enjoyed Cats before and want to relive the “Memory” again, there is plenty to enjoy here.

 

Edited by Scott Harrah
Published August 7, 2016
Reviewed at press performance on August 4, 2016

 

Cats

‘CATS’: Andy Huntington Jones as Munkustrap. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Cats

‘CATS’: Tyler Hanes as Rum Tum Tugger. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Cats

‘CATS’: Quentin Earl Darrington as Old Deuteronomy. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Cats

‘CATS’: Georgina Pazcoguin as Victoria. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Cats

‘CATS’: Kim Faure as Demeter & Christine Cornish Smith as Bombalurina & company. Photo: Matthew Murphy

'CATS': The company. Photo: Matthew Murphy

‘CATS’: The company. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Cats

‘CATS’: Leona Lewis. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Cats

‘CATS’: Leona Lewis. Photo: Matthew Murphy

FLASHBACK TO ORIGINAL PRODUCTION: Betty Buckley as Grizabella in 'Cats' back in 1982. Photo: Martha Swope

FLASHBACK TO ORIGINAL PRODUCTION: Betty Buckley as Grizabella in ‘Cats’ back in 1982. Photo: Martha Swope

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