June 27th, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews *Cats* (the musical)

I read Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot when I was kid, and enjoyed it immensely. I would love to claim to have been the sort of tween who randomly read books of poetry from the 30s (and to a certain extent, I was) but I read this one because my friend Kim had gone to see *Cats* and couldn’t stop talking about it. I was clearly not going to be taken to *Cats*, because my parents, lovers of musicals though they are, are more Stephen Sondheim than Andrew Lloyd Webber. So I was very sad, and Kim suggested I might like the book as a substitute. I did! It’s just a book of nonsense rhymes introducing a variety of chubby, mischievous, happy, and sad cats. I guess nonsense rhymes is not quite right–they make sense by their own internal logic. It’s not like “And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat” is immediately obvious in meaning if you’ve not read the rest of the poem, either.

And that reading has helped mold me into the adult I am now, who knows all the words to every song in *Rent* and regularly makes videos of cats I meet. I’ve never combined these two passions of mine, I think because I have never been in a city where *Cats* was playing…but I’m unobservant, so I could’ve missed it. Nevertheless, the point is that there I was, 35 years old, encountering the wonder that is *Cats* the musical for the first time.


So much dancing, so much singing, wild costumes, incredible choreography, enthused, tightly polished performers, and a *very* positive audience. Plot–eh, not so much. Old Possum’s book was a collection of poems, almost of them descriptions of individual cats. These work surprisingly well as individual songs, and give each member of the cast (well, almost each–there’s about 3 cats on-stage that have no song of their own. Weird.) Anyway, the “plot” such as it is, is that every year on the night of the Jellicle moon (which I thought meant full moon, but there are twelve of those per year, so who knows) all the Jellicle cats gather and their leader, Old Deuteronomy, chooses one cat who gets to live another life…in space.

Well, I know don’t know–they go up on a high platform at the end of the play, Old Deuteronomy and the chosen cat, and then they go behind this scrim that is suddenly lit up with zaps and flashes of green electricity and then the chosen one disappears–seemed a lot like a Trekkie teleport to me. I’ve brought this with others, who variously insist that the special cat goes to heaven or is reincarnated in a new life. Either way, basically the cats have gathered to murder one of their own. “This sounds like Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,'” said my musical hating husband.

My husband stayed home. All musical-haters should stay home from *Cats*. I’m not saying no musical-haters will ever be brought round–you might get behind the plot of *Les Miz* or the humour of *Into the Woods* or a thousand other multifaceted musicals. But *Cats* is really really really a musical-lover’s musical. Plotless (except for the space/heaven thing), almost completely without dialogue, narrative, even setting (they’re in some kind of junkyard, never determined where or why), *Cats* is about dancing and singing, full stop. The songs are about nothing and though some of the movement onstage is very convincingly catlike, the actual dance-numbers are nothing of the kind. They are DANCE NUMBERS. Tightly choreographed, impeccably rehearsed and lovely to watch, the dance routines have very little to do with cats. They are what musical watchers love, though–big showy dances.

I ate it up with a spoon. *American Idiot* aka the Green Day musical, was the last show I saw with lots of dancing in unison. The choreography made no sense in that show–would punks dance in unison? Of course not. Well, neither would cats, but at least their routines didn’t look like high-impact aerobics. This paragraph has wandered off–what I was getting at was that *Cats* is great because it embraces what it is, a showcase for song and dance.

And singers and dancers! There are SO MANY talented people in this show–I didn’t see a misstep out of all the many routines with their oh-so-similar setup and cues. And they were always beaming, whereas you’d think a normal person would’ve sweated through his or her spandex unitard and collapsed two numbers ago. I was really impressed with the cast, and pissed that their program notes featured photos taken NOT in their cat costumes, so if you couldn’t recall a cat’s name, you couldn’t figure out who played him or her.

I’ve noticed a Toronto musical theatre phenomenon where everyone’s an outstanding dancer and there are many outstanding singers, along with some servicable ones. I didn’t didn’t see a misstep in the show, but I heard a few wobbly notes, if not outright false ones.

Quibbles, quibbles. I will be singing Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats for the rest of my days, content in the knowledge that the words mean nothing and I couldn’t do that dance routine without a dozen lines of coke and plastic surgery. Cats was well-performed, well-staged, and a joy to watch. I don’t quite know if it was well-written–the TS Eliot poems are good as far as they go, which is not far, and the one original song by Andrew Lloyd Webber, “Memories” has certainly gained cultural weight (though I thought it was a bit dreary compared to the Jellicle stuff, myself). Oh, hell, who even cares what wordy explanation I can come up with about a 30-year-old musical–I loved it, but I also totally understood the man who stood and marched up the aisle ten minutes into the show, never to return. He was muttering “I can’t take this.”

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