If you’re a fan of “Cats,” the iconic Andrew Lloyd Weber musical that first opened on Broadway in 1982 and ran for 18 years, this isn’t the review for you. I’ve seen the musical, which has been attended by an estimated 73 million people in 30 countries, precisely one time, so I can’t compare the performances of the Broadway versus the touring Mistoffelees, or wax eloquent about whether this production’s handling of the transformation of Grizabella or the white kitten’s opening dance was superior.
But I am a longtime fan of actual cats, from the Spooky, Boots and Casper of my childhood to the Gretel and the unforgettable Yitzie of recent years. (Apologies for knowing only one of their three names.) And I was fortunate enough to attend the opening night of “Cats” at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre Feb. 27, so I’ll do my best.
This production includes new choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, who worked on “Hamilton,” and the dancing is spectacular. There is plenty to evoke the almost infinitely flexible nature of cats’ bodies, and even a fun tap dance. The Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer number was by far my favorite. The original scenic and costume design by John Napier (“Les Misérables”) are enhanced by all-new lighting design by Natasha Katz (“Aladdin”). Elements of the choreography and lighting help to bring the production out into the audience, so that if you’re fortunate enough to score an orchestra seat, you’re truly drawn in.
All I knew about “Cats” before Wednesday night was that annoying earworm of a song, “Memory,” sung by Grizabella. In this production, Keri René Fuller did an absolute star turn as the tattered cat who is shunned by her fellows, and changed my mind about the song as well. Her understated solo before the intermission made the reprise by the complete company in Act II a showstopper – the perfect case study of why we seek out live music.
A little homework beforehand would clearly have enhanced my enjoyment of the show. All around us, veteran “Cats” fans were on the edge of their seats and cheering as their favorite cats’ turns at center stage came around. My millennial daughter and I, meanwhile, looked at each other with a shrug following the opening number and said, eyebrows raised, “Jellicle?”
This need to understand what’s going on might be less of a problem for kids. I’m always happy to see children at the Pantages, and those attending this show seemed to be enjoying themselves. But because “Cats” includes almost no spoken dialog and very little plot exposition, I think kids will enjoy it more if you fill them in on the basic story ahead of time. I’d explain it like this:
“This show is about a group of cats from all over the city that gather together for a big party. The party is like a contest, so different cats will take turns introducing themselves and showing off a bit. A wise old cat will pick one of them to begin a brand-new life. Watch all of the cats and think about which one is your favorite and which one you would pick.” That turns it into something like “America’s Got Talent.”
Parents and older kids (9 and up) new to “Cats” could pre-read “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the collection of poems by T.S. Elliot on which the show is based. Doing so would have cleared up my confusion about “Jellicle” and made numbers such as “The Naming of Cats” fun to look forward to.
Another option is to approach the show the way you would an actual cat. They tend to be inscrutable, and there’s no need to work too hard trying to crack their code. Best just to sit back and enjoy the parade of antics, which are an absolute visual and musical treat.
“Cats” will be at the Pantages through March 24.