Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2006
My little brown cat Mary is the epitome of style over substance. I believe she is constituted thusly:
5% Purrs and Meows
5% Owl-y Eyes and Pointy Ears
15% Structural Necessities (i.e. bones, blood, vital organs, etc.)
Andrew Lloyd Webber has constructed his Cats along the same lines. And like Mary, the original creative team, and now director/choreographer Rusty Curcio, costume designer Jimm Halliday and the whole gang at the Mac-Haydn, have spent hours and hours arranging the fluff to its optimum glory.
There is nothing wrong with fluff. Some things need their fluff. Without her fluff, Mary would be nothing but a noisy skeleton with eyeballs. Her fluff defines her. In this regard Cats is definitely catlike.
In case you have been living under a rock since 1981, Cats is a sung-through musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on T.S. Eliot’s delightful little book of poems Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats which currently holds the record as the longest running show in Broadway history, closing an astonishing 18 year run in 2000. I say astonishing because Lloyd Webber’s score is repetitive, to say the least, and the feeble attempt he and director Trevor Nunn made at concocting a plot is laughable.
The reason people go to see Cats is to see Cats. Done properly it is a feast for the eyes, and the Mac-Haydn has invested every resource at their disposal to make it so. This is a monumental technical effort for this little company. They have pulled out all the stops to create the theatrical magic of Cats and make it work in their intimate space, and they have succeeded on a grand scale.
From the time this show was announced, I have been jokingly referring to it as Cats in Your Lap on the assumption that there might literally be cats in my lap in the Mac-Haydn’s close quarters. One thing I knew for sure was that I would be seeing the actors and their costumes and make-up far more closely than I did when I saw Cats on Broadway in 1992. And, unlike that occasion when the performers were so far away and moved so fast and furiously that I really couldn’t tell one cat from another, I would know many of these performers from their past work.
Nunn, director of the original London and Broadway productions of Cats wrote: “The chosen actors have to be able to beam their personalities through oddly shaped wigs and highly colored make-ups and unusual physical behavior, and so their characters in performance are almost bound to be derived from constituents of their real natures.”
This is absolutely true. The performers in Cats are so heavily disguised that the only thing you can see clearly is their talent. Cats is the ultimate test of an actor – can you make yourself memorable or will you just become one of the litter?
The cream rose instantly to the surface at the Mac-Haydn, with Stephen Bolte, Karla Shook, and Kelly L. Shook at the top of the heap. Kelly Shook, as Rumpleteaser, is paired with Paul Flanagan as her doppelganger troublemaker Mungojerrie for a lively duet early in the show, but just pops with personality throughout the proceedings. You know that cat who knows she’s just the prettiest thing? Well, that’s Rumpleteaser.
Karla Shook is Grizabella the Glamour Cat, which means all she really gets to do is limp and sing the big money number Memory, a song I neither like nor understand. But Grizabella is the “star” part, and Karla Shook can legitimately claim that star power and presence.
As Gus (short for Asparagus) the Theatre Cat, Bolte turns in a performance so complete and moving that he is in a class by himself. He perfectly captures the tragedy of old age – when you know your life is waning and your best days are behind you – in body and spirit. I was moved to tears. I really wasn’t expecting such a perfect gem of a performance in the midst of all this fluff.
John Saunders as Bustopher Jones and Michael Shiles as Old Deuteronomy have nice character turns. Saunders is the picture of corpulent felinity in his white spats (who hasn’t known a cat with white spats at some point in their life?) Shiles is in particularly fine voice, and maneuvers around the stage the best he can while wearing acres of shaggy wool (if the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company discovered its sheep mysteriously shorn anytime recently they might want to run a DNA test on Shiles’ costume.)
Maggie Marino is another featured player who bobs to the surface here. As Jennyanydots the Gumby Cat she is all cheerful bustle and purrs. I have absolute no idea why she gets to tap dance with a chorus of cockroaches, but it provides one of those surreal theatrical moments that make theatre critics ponder their calling.
It was nice to see Jason Paul and Sean Quinn given featured roles once again. They were both so good in the season opener Forever Plaid and have languished in the chorus ever since. Quinn is a chipper Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, bouncing with feline grace through his solo number, and Paul plays Munkustrap, the kind of MC cat who keeps the story, meager as it is, moving along.
The other two soloists, Brent Smith as Rum Tum Tugger and Sean Zimmerman as Macavity, both missed the mark with performances high on testosterone and low on pizzazz.
Curcio makes a specialty dance appearance as the Magical Mr. Mistoffeles, the highlight of which is a seemingly endless set of one-legged spins. Take my advice and wait until he’s all done before you start applauding this athletic tour-de-force because trust me, he is able to spin longer than you are able clap.
Curcio’s choreography and Halliday’s costumes are the ultimate stars of this show. Curcio keeps everyone moving all the time. Time Magazine critic T.E. Kalem called Cats a “…triumph of motion over emotion.” Look closely and you’ll see plenty of basic stage dance steps, but suspend your disbelief and accept these ludicrous creatures as cats and you will find moves that can pass for feline. There are no cats in your lap, but there are cats everywhere else. Sitting on the aisle I was frequently solicited for a pat on the head or a tickle behind the ears by the familiar sensation of something soft brushing against my leg.
There is not enough space or time to give sufficient praise to Halliday and his corps of costume artists. It literally took an army of people several months to create these costumes, and they are wonderful. In my research for this review I was surprised to learn that each cat has a signature look – in other words Munkustrap is always a tabby, Victoria is always pure white, etc. – and I am sure there are Cats purists out there who would go ballistic if these traditions weren’t followed, and I am happy to report that Halliday and company have done an excellent job of following the rules. Not only do the Mac-Haydn cats look like the Broadway cats, they look just as impeccably professional at very close range. There were no gaps between cloth and make-up and wigs. Each cat is a fully realized artistic whole.
My only slight disappointment was that Kristian Perry’s set wasn’t more environmental. Cats is set in a junkyard by moonlight, with all the set pieces made super-size in order to show the space from a cat’s eye view. It seemed to me that there was great opportunity to allow the giant junk to envelope the audience in the lobby and in their seats. I was frankly hoping to enter the theatre through a giant tin can or something equally fanciful, but my imagination probably does not correspond to the Chatham fire code or the Mac-Haydn’s set budget.
As it is Perry and lighting designer Andrew Gmoser have done their best to transform the space. The show begins in heavy stage fog with special lighting effects the likes of which I have never seen at the Mac before. And Grizabella’s ascension to the Heaviside Layer is nicely done with enough technical wizardry to make it special without over-reaching the physical limits of the space.
I think the very modesty and intimacy of the Mac-Haydn is what takes this production of Cats beyond mere spectacle and into the realm of true theatre magic – magic created through artistry and dedication, rather than via an unlimited budget. You never ask “How’d they do that?” because you know full well they did it by working very hard and being very clever and wanting very much to entertain you royally. You could see bigger productions of Cats but you won’t see better.
Cats runs through August 6 (three weekends!) at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006