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Review: Cats is Cats – And There’s No Doing Anything Abow-wow-wowt it (alas)

I’ve just finished a 4-musicals-in-8-days blitz (just because it’s May, May, May!) and have a day job, so I am doing some catch-up here on my reviews for the week. On Tuesday I finally got around to seeing Theatre Calgary’s production of Cats by Britain’s master of modern musical theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber, along with 6 other people from the Calgary Musicals Meetup Group. I realize that with only a week left in its extended run, it’s a little late for a review, but I figured I might as well write about it anyway, if only for completeness – and because I’m overdue for a rant.

I’m going to cut to the chase here. I don’t much like Cats (the musical, or the animal for that matter – unfortunately I’m semi-allergic, and more of a dog person anyway) – in fact it’s right after any Gilbert and Sullivan operetta on my little list of shows that would not be missed. The more I come out of the closet on that score (pun intended), the more I find I am in good company, notwithstanding the fact that it’s the second longest-running show in Broadway history and the fourth longest running show in London’s West end – and, not surprisingly, a popular choice by Calgarians as well, based on Theatre Calgary’s box office sales. According to Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik, authors of “Broadway Musicals – The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time”, which my sister Susan gave me for Christmas, “Broadway’s first show for the tired, Japanese businessman, Cats baffled experienced Broadwayites but struck a chord with prepubescent girls, school trips from places that didn’t have their own thee-ay-ter, and a few other people – we’re not sure who, but it certainly ran. And ran. And ran.” (And I thought I was a musical theatre snob).

The show is based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot. (a series of poems for his godchildren) and tells the “story” of a tribe of cats called the Jellicles and the night they make what is known as “the Jellicle choice” and decide which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life. Mostly it’s just a series of song-and-dance vignettes in which each type of cat is introduced, not unlike the toys in The Nutcracker Suite. By early in Act II I’m yearning for some semblance of a plot and feeling nostalgic for Tim Rice’s clever lyrics rather than lines like “So first, your memory I’ll jog, and say a cat is not a dog” – which apparently is so brilliant it bears repeating (OK, the line doesn’t come till the end of the show, but you get my point). Fortunately, my impending boredom is staved off by the timely arrival of my two favourite songs: Macavity The Mystery Cat and Magical Mister Mistoffelees, and I’m able to make it to the end of the show. Memory, the song which everyone knows and waits for with anticipation, is one of two that is based on other T.S. Elliot works, with lyrics by the original director, Trevor Nunn. Snippets of it are repeated throughout the show, and although it’s undeniably great, I’ve always thought it felt out-of-place – like an “Oh, my God, I have written an entire musical without one mega-hit in it” afterthought by the good Sir Lloyd Webber.

That being said, Theatre Calgary did a great job of bringing Cats  - and cats - to life. While it doesn’t have a big Broadway or West End budget, the show has enough spectacle to please those that are looking for that. Patrick Clark’s junkyard (discussed in this spring’s Theatre Alberta magazine) is fantastic and the athletic choreography by Lisa Stevens is pretty much unparalleled in Calgary musical theatre short of a night at the ballet. Both of these would be more impressive from one of the balconies, I imagine, rather than in the best of the “cheap seats” near the front of the orchestra, as we were (it really does pay to book well ahead of time for blockbusters like this, I assure you). Highlights for me were Tory Doctor’s hilariously flirty tomcat Rum Tum Tugger (Tory was recently seen in Jeremy de Bergerac) and the swashbuckling Kieran Martin Murphy in “Growltiger’s Last Stand”. I also enjoyed the fabulous dancing by Robert Allan and Ksenia Thurgood (the latter of whom was recently seen in Ash Rizin) as Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, and by Devon Tullock as Magical Mister Mistoffeles.

If you haven’t seen Cats, this show is worth taking in, if only to see what all the fuss is about – and you might well be one of the many people who absolutely love it. Many of my theatre companions did, and it’s certainly a great show for families. But if you were dragged there by someone or went because you thought you should see it, and been ashamed to admit you didn’t “get it”, be comforted that you are not alone, and don’t give up on musical theatre altogether, because there are plenty of other great shows out there that might suit you better, especially this month.

Cats plays at Theatre Calgary until May 19th (extended run). Tickets range in price from $35 to $111.  For more information see: Theatre Calgary

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7 thoughts on “Review: Cats is Cats – And There’s No Doing Anything Abow-wow-wowt it (alas)

  1. Like you, I especially enjoyed Theatre Calgary’s Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer duo. Lots of energy there.

    Next to ‘Memory’, my favourite song in the show is Gus: the Theatre Cat. I find it poignant. Gus and Grizabella should have duked it out to be chosen for cat reincarnation. That would have been plot.

  2. Like you, I especially enjoyed the Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer duo. Lots of energy there.

    Next to “Memory”, my favourite Cats song is Gus: the Theatre Cat. I find it poignant. Gus and Grizabella should have duked it out to be chosen for cat reincarnation. That would have been plot.

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