Pantages’ ‘Cats’ embraces its eccentricities

“Cats,” which is the fourth-longest running Broadway production in history, opened Wednesday at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. The production will run through March 24. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy)

The national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” opened Wednesday night at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. Trevor Nunn, who directed the original Broadway production and its 2016 revival, directed this year’s production as well. The premise of the musical and its associated spectacle, which was inspired by T.S. Elliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” has attracted large audiences for years. The original 1982 Broadway production set the record for the fourth-longest running Broadway production in history with 7,485 performances, according to The New York Times. Though the show is notorious for its “love it or hate it” quality, on opening night, the theater was practically full. 

The production follows a tribe of cats known as “Jellicle Cats” (an obnoxiously catchy song of the same name makes sure that their name is not forgotten), as they plan and throw the tribe’s annual Jellicle Ball.  

Most of the show is comprised of songs that introduce different types of cats and shed light on their lives. The cats range from Macavity, a mysterious criminal, to Rum Tum Tugger, an energetic rock star. Grizabella, a cat whose once-glamorous demeanor and appearance have turned decrepit and sad, makes the other Jellicle Cats shy away from her. She begs to Old Deuteronomy, the tribe leader, to be reborn into a new life at the Jellicle Ball.  She sings “Memory” to Old Deuteronomy, one of the most well-known songs from the show. Her appeal succeeds, and she is sent to the “Heaviside layer,” where Jellicle Cats go if they are chosen to be reborn.

In this performance, Grizabella (Keri René Fuller), is the most endearing character of the bunch. Fuller’s strong vocal performance of “Memory” tugs at the audience’s heartstrings, but the overall lack of connection the audience has to any of the other performers makes it hard for the tune to resonate effectively. 

The show also lacks a cohesive plot. It feels like a song and dance revue tied together only by the fact that the characters are cats. However, the dance elements of the show are particularly strong, with some of the most captivating moments occurring in silent partner dance sequences. The entire ensemble keeps up with the physically demanding choreography — they galavant about the stage in an impressively cat-like and agile manner throughout the show.

The cast members also enter the audience during the show, adding an interactive element to the performance.

The musical’s design elements also shine through in the Los Angeles production. John Napier’s scenic and costume design fit harmoniously with Natasha Katz’s lighting effects to create a realistic London junkyard. The use of found objects in costuming and set design add to the sense of playfulness that characterizes the entire production. During the song, “Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat,” a train is built before the audience’s eyes through the creative utilization of the ensemble, a large sheet of metal, old metal wheel spokes and a cardboard tube. The lighting also matches the heavy ’80s inspiration found within the music and costumes, with neon hues of purple and orange lighting up the stage. 

The strengths of both the design and performance elements are captured in “Magical Mister Mistoffelees.” Mistoffelees (Tion Gaston) is a compelling dancer, adorned in a sparkly bodysuit and LED blazer that seems to magically change color during his performance. Near the end of the number, he seizes control of the string lights that travel across the theater, making them change colors in time with his jacket. 

At the end of the day, “Cats” is what the audience makes of it. Whether you go to marvel at the spectacle of people in skin-tight catsuits and fluffy legwarmers dancing their hearts out, to giggle at the absurdity of these human-like cats with strange names or even to look for some sort of catharsis within the shallow plot line, there is a reason why the production has had so much commercial success over the years. The actors’ collective ability to capture the essence of humanity’s feline friends and perform elaborate song and dance numbers throughout the show is incredibly impressive, and the  spectacle created in the set and costume design only bolster that effect.