If you grew up in the state of New York in the 1980s and ’90s, there were certain elements of pop culture that you just could not escape. Some might consider them warm blankets of nostalgia that keep you comfortable on a cozy night, while others might call them “earworms.” Some that come to mind are the “I love New York (what-a-great-va-ca-tion)” jingle, the Milford Plaza commercial to the tune of “The Lullaby of Broadway,” and finally, the unforgettable advertising gimmick where a woman coming out of a Broadway show exclaims to a reporter, “I laughed; I cried; It was better than ‘Cats!’”
Somehow “Cats,” which premiered in 1981 at the New London Theatre in England, became the bar by which all other shows needed to be “better than.” But, like every other thing that reaches the height of popularity, there is the inevitable fall from grace. The cliche “familiarity breeds contempt” is a fancy way of saying “first comes love, then comes enough already, then comes ridicule,” and in the case of “Cats,” then comes ... the film. Which brings us to the elephant – or enormous CGI cat – in the room: How do we move past all of this, and walk into the KeyBank State Theatre at Playhouse Square with an open mind? What are the tools that we need to watch, enjoy and even embrace in this re-imagining of the fourth longest Broadway show of all time? The answer is simple – we need to remember that “Cats” has nine lives.
There is a clear divide between those who are fans of the musical, and those who have a hard time with the fact that there is no actual plot other than the introduction of many different types of cats with their various characteristics, and the eventual choice of which cat will be sent to “heaviside layer” to be reborn and return to a new life. This menagerie of cats is a charming concept for the original book of poetry T.S. Eliot wrote for his godchildren, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” on which this musical is based; however,the rebirth of this book into a stage show gives off a bizarre vibe. Some absolutely adore the show for its eclectic score and innovative choreography, or because of the emotional hit song “Memory,” or the fact that it brings up actual memories of seeing this show during its original or subsequent runs. Others spend much of the show grappling with a question evoked by the first song – just what is a “Jellicle Cat”?
Regardless of which side of the aisle you are on, it is hard to argue with the fact that this particular production of “Cats” is packed with talent. As an ensemble, the dancing is outstanding, and the singing is gorgeous, especially in the choral numbers, with some soloists rising above the others.
Michelle E. Carter taps her way into our hearts as Jennyanydots. Throughout the show, it is hard not to be drawn to her with her expressive face, fluid dance moves, and sparkly vocals. “The Old Gumbie Cat” is a nod to everything we love about a big splashy classic tap number.
John Anker Bow is another standout in his multiple roles of Peter, Bustopher Jones and Asparagus. The latter shows off his versatility not only as a singer, but as an actor embracing both comedy and drama.
Cameron Schutza has a stunning classically trained voice which lends itself to his role as Old Deuteronomy.
Hank Santos adds a little grit and loads of fun to the role of Rum Tum Tugger. His style is reminiscent of the Pharaoh’s character in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Ibn Snell adds magic to the stage as Mistoffelees, and although his vocals are not as strong as some of the others, his dance number stops the show. There are other cast members whose incredibly skilled dancing overshadows their adequate vocals. Fortunately they are given the gift of clever choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, in addition to the innovative original choreography by Gillian Lynne, to show off those skills.
The biggest hit song from the show is “Memory,” sung by Tayler Harris making her Broadway tour debut as Grizabella. The song isn’t sung in its entirety until the end of Act II, but it is well worth the wait. Harris’s voice is brimming with emotion, soaring all the way up to the “heaviside layer.” As she belts the lyric “Touch me. It’s so easy to leave me,” she practically lifts us out of our seats with her impassioned vocals.
The Junkyard set serves as a playful backdrop for the show, but the dazzling lighting design is the star of this piece, not only adding to the mystique of the atmosphere, but enhancing the energy of the show as a whole.
The musical “Cats” may not be everyone’s saucer of milk, but this newest iteration with its talented ensemble of dancers and those standout numbers are the “cat’s meow.” Pun intended.
Sheri Gross is the CJN theatre critic. She is a performer, director and freelance writer from Solon. She was the director of the Mandel JCC Playmakers Youth Theatre and Pilloff Performing Arts Camp for over 20 years and is the director of creative programs at Gross Schechter Day School in Pepper Pike.