I don’t actually remember seeing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wildly ambitious stage musical “Cats” before.
When: Through June 2
Where: Walton Arts Center
Cost: Starting at $38 + fees
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or tickets.waltonartscenter.org
But sure enough, it was part of my memory bank all the same. Before walking into the Walton Arts Center on Tuesday (May 28) to watch the touring production that’s in Fayetteville through June 2, I knew the basic sketch of it. A bunch of actors in over-the-top cat costumes run and crawl and pounce on the stage, and there’s also the song “Memory,” part of musical theater’s canon of showstoppers. “Memory” has been covered by a lot of artists and existed as a hit outside of Broadway, so it’s possible that you know it without knowing “Cats,” too.
It was a sensation upon its West End debut in 1981 and subsequent expansion to Broadway in 1982. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical (and Trevor Nunn captured one for best direction) in 1983 and ran on Broadway for 18 years, closing as the longest-running Broadway show of all time (a mark since surpassed by Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera”).
But it’s not one we get to see often, and I think that’s because of the scale of the vision. We can watch many of Broadway’s staples at community theaters in the region, and they seem to come through in five-year rotations. “Cats,” meanwhile, requires the kind of costuming and dance acumen that few could attempt without looking like a cheap knockoff. (And that’s not to mention theater licensing, which regulates where shows can be and when…)
Cats” has been to the Walton Arts Center before – in the early 1990s, not long after the WAC opened, and twice since, most recently during the 2006-2007 season of Broadway shows. That means this week’s run of shows is a rarity, and Northwest Arkansas responded by packing the WAC to the brim and then promptly hushing in anticipation as the cat eyes lit up the dark stage to begin the night’s proceedings.
What’s here at the WAC is the national touring production with a few updates over the original, notably choreography work by Andy Blankenbuehler, who choreographed “Hamilton.” It might mean that this is a slightly different show than people know. But only slightly – it still features all of the characteristics of the imaginative original (as I understand them, at least).
The show in Fayetteville is an expansive event. Early Tuesday morning before the show began, I counted five semi trucks parked in the WAC’s loading dock or just outside waiting for their turn. I suspect at least one of them was required for the costumes alone. The others contained various on-stage gadgetry, like a junkyard oven that doubles as a smoke-emitting entrance point for one of the cats.
The scenery stays static throughout the show, and that’s by design. The cats need a playground and an open area for dancing and little else. They are active enough that the scenery is backdrop, with a notable exception of the moment when characters cleverly arrange onstage junk into a train.
The movement and magical is critical, considering the nearly complete lack of plot. Every onstage utterance is from the pen of the poet T.S. Eliot, with the exception of “Memory,” which was merely based on his work (and approved for usage by his estate). The story unfolds like it was originally written – as a series of whimsical, nonsensical poems. There’s a faint idea that stitches these poems together, as the wise cat named Old Deuteronomy has gathered all of the Jellicle cats so he can pick one that gets to travel to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn. Heaviside is most certainly heaven, and the cats, with names like Macavity and Rum Tug Tugger and Bombalurina, are eager to get there. That’s it. That’s the plot. Old Deuteronomy must make the decision at the Jellicle Ball, and among those making their case for ascension is Grizabella, who recalls her younger years via the song “Memory.” “Cats” gets a lot of mileage out of that song; it’s performed several times by several characters. Like a poem, almost all of the lyrics are repeated and repurposed. There’s a lot of not much happening.
But the lyrics are not what most people came for, and I can confirm that the dancing is superb. It’s a full stage, frantic production. One of the novelties of “Cats” is that characters can disappear and reappear elsewhere without notice because it’s hard to know which writhing body to watch at any specific time. It’s very much about the ensemble cast, interacting and taking turns dancing and leaping and doing backflips. As a result, “Cats” is more cirque than “South Pacific.” The levels of fitness required of this cast rivals any show you’ll watch, as the dancing does not stop.
There’s a hint of magic at work, and not just from the magical cat Mister Mistoffelees, who gets an extended solo dance number while wearing a light-up blazer. There are hidden doors, flying characters and lights that extend out over the audience. And, as a note: Grab your drink early and keep seated. The aisles are not off limits to prowling cats.
The live orchestra, under the direction of Eric Kang, bolsters the production. The music is very Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque, and very 1980s, with heavy synthesizers leading the melody. There’s no dialogue outside of the songs.
“Cats” has a list of devotees. I wouldn’t put myself in that camp now that I have seen it. But here are new things I know after sitting in a theater with the Jellicle Cats: The show is imaginative, bold and transporting, all of which are things we ask musical theater to be. You might know the basic idea of “Cats,” too – it does happen to be one of the most famous of the Broadway shows. But it’s a bit more than meets its blinking yellow eyes.