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LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
Believe it or not, there really was a time when the Winter Garden wasn't the playground of T.S. Eliot's jellicle cats as musicalized by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a hefty assist from John Napier and Trevor Nunn. It was home to Al Jolson's first blackface show as well such cat-less musicals as Hellzapoppin, Top Banana, Wonderful Town, West Side Story and Follies. Clearly this grand old dame was no stranger to hit shows.
But Cats is more than a hit; at going on eighteen it's become a genuine theatrical landmark. The tickets have taken a leap from the original $40 top. The ingenious costumes have been worn by a variety of Bustophers, Grizabellas, Old Deuteronomys, Rum Tum Tuggars, Macavitys (many trading in their whiskers and tails for starring roles elsewhere -- notably, Betty Buckley, Terrence Mann (Rum Tum Tugger), Bryan Batt and Laurie Beacham). But the show keeps rejuvenating itself with each new set of cats and the continuing stream of tourists of whom it's become a must see in a class with the Statue of Liberty. In fact, the babel of languages echoing through the lobby might make you think you'd stumbled into a Berlitz school theater party for all its students.
The universal language of dance and the visual spectacle that drive Cats account for much of its amazing success. While the plot, such as it is, derives from a slim volume of verse by one of England's most distinguished poets, Gillian Lynne's choreography for the slinky, slithering, human-sized felines conveys their personalities to non-English speakers as well as children. It may at times match composer Lloyd-Webber's tendency towards repetition and fall short of the work of Jerome Robbins or Bob Fosse, but it is to be marvelled at for its energy. Its demanding, pulsing athleticism has without a doubt had a ripple effect on post-Cats musicals.
There are other elements which have made the show impervious to critical putdowns about watering down Eliot's witty verses and the reliance on a single operatic melodic aria, "Memory", to carry everything else. Based on a recent visit to the Winter Garden, I can provide a list of these assets with the added assurance that the show retains its sparkle with costumes and props none the worse for wear:
Grand staging and the non-stop dance energy notwithstanding, Cats has times when it seems more like a nightclub act than a quality musical. The first part has more than a few moments that drag despite all that's going on and the applause doesn't really pick up until close to the intermission.
Because the show is not star-driven the frequent cast changes it has undergone and will continue to undergo are actually a plus factor. Some cats may better capture the personalities of their assigned roles than others, but the overall level of the performances is very high. Stephen Bienskie whose work I last admired in a small musical, The Last Session (our review) is terrific as Rum Tum Tugger, as is Keith Edward Wilson as that "Napoleon of Crime" Macavity. Linda Balgord has the hollow cheeks and melancholy persona of the has-been glamour cat Grizabella but her role models, especially the her first-time-around rendition of "Memory" seemed to be decidedly human -- a cross between Edith Piaf (the "little sparrow" chanteuse) and old-time silent film damsels in distress (like Lillian Gish).
I won't tell you to hurry and see Cats for two simple reasons: 1. It's not going to vary too much no matter who plays what cat. 2. Unlike so many shows, musical or drama, it seems here to stay. So, if you can't see it today or tomorrow, it's safe to say it will be here for weeks, months, and probably years to come -- just like the Statue of Liberty.
Other recent CurtainUp landmark showreviews:
Phantom of the Opera