BWW Reviews: There's Something About CATS at the Cadillac Palace Theatre
Forget "Rock Of Ages." That 21st century musical about the 1980s has nothing on the real thing. "Cats," the show that set much of the look and tone of musical theater for the next decade or so when it opened in London in 1981 and in New York in 1982 (and began continuous touring in 1984, a record unmatched in theater history) is on display for this week only (sorry, "Now And Forever") at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre. And I, who saw the original Broadway production twice during that heady decade and have not seen the show in any form since then, was eager to go and see what the fuss was, and is, all about. So I went, Tuesday night.
If you've never seen this show, if you kids have never seen it, or if you want to experience the magic of this unique theatrical masterpiece one more time, then this is a great opportunity to do so, as this is the only remaining North American production to (somewhat) accurately replicate the award-winning, record-setting British musical that took America and the world by storm thirty years ago. This tour of non-Equity performers, with its usual orchestra of five beefed up to eight for a weeklong stand (May 1-6) in a major theatrical market, has enough going for it that I highly recommend it. It's a little like entering a time machine, and there's a lot of sleight of hand, but it works. Let me explain.
What is "Cats?" Much maligned by insiders, derided as dated by visual artists, underrated by dance teachers and ignored by voice teachers (save for its megahit song, "Memory," which is heard twice, but never in the sheet music version everything has heard and claims to know), it is in many ways a dichotomy. It's a dance show (choreography by Gillian Lynne) written by a singer's songwriter (Andrew Lloyd Webber), as well as a British song cycle based on poems written by a St. Louis-born English poet (T. S. Eliot) who never intended his work ("Old Possum's Book Of Practical Cats," and other snippets) to be either musicalized or staged.
Its plot, slight though it is, is also the subject of much derision, but to this observer is very reminiscent of "A Chorus Line," a universally revered work that does include dialogue and more depth of character, but also honors unity of time and place. However, there are indeed works that dispense with plot entirely, and which people unabashedly love (you know, revues--"Ain't Misbehavin'" comes to mind), and even shows like "Forever Plaid" and Lloyd Webber's "Starlight Express" feature heaven-going as a climax that is not entirely a surprise. So, enough complaining about there being no dramatic tension, already.
But the spectacle! Is it a rock concert with dance, a dance concert with character, a makeup and hair extravaganza with arena-style lighting (still thrilling, the work of David Hersey, as recreated by Rick Belzer), a radio-friendly cast album with a decidedly British keyboard-rock spin, an intellectual set of inscrutable poems with earworm melodies, an environmental theater piece that's fun for all ages (an unmistakeable set and costume design by the remarkable John Napier)--what exactly is going on? The answer, of course, is all of the above. Oh, and it owes a lot to the English music hall tradition and to contemporary classical music, too, not to mention Puccini. Name another show that encompasses so much.
Not to mention that original marketing campaign. Aside from his immature works (the children's show "Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and others), Lloyd Webber's previous shows written with Tim Rice (the two nominated for the Best Revival of a Musical Tony Award this year, "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita,") were both introduced to the world via record albums and marketing campaigns that featured a logo rather than a star name and image. But "Cats" seemed to take that even further, dispensing with the concept album and zeroing in on the show AS the star. Indeed, this show has no leading roles. Really.
But who can forget that moon/cats' eyes/dancer silhouette logo, and the letters of the title in color-coordinated graffiti (echoing the oversized junkyard scene design). It was exciting and revolutionary at the time, and the only shows that have done it better since then (Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom Of The Opera" and director Trevor Nunn's "Les Miserables," all three produced by wunderkind Cameron Mackintosh) are the only ones that have run longer in London and New York, due to the lessons they learned from the feline juggernaut before us now. It was "the birth of the musical spectacular," as Broadway In Chicago's promotional materials tell us.
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Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to BroadwayWorld.com since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as a performer, teacher and writer is centered at Paul W. Thompson Music, located in Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building, where he teaches the great songs of Broadway to the next generation of musical theater performers. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Paul was raised in a family of professional musicians and teachers, steeped in classical, gospel, country, pop, sacred and show music. Dubbed a “thin, winsome lad” at the age of 13 by a critic for the Nashville Banner, he earned two degrees in musical theater (a B.F.A. with Honors from Baylor University and an M.M. from the University of Miami, Florida), plus an M.B.A. with Distinction from DePaul University. Paul’s memberships include Actors’ Equity Association, the American Guild of Musical Artists, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (proud voter for the Grammy Awards!), the National Association of Teachers of Singing and New York’s Drama League.|
Moving easily between the worlds of classical music, religious music, classic pop and musical theater, Paul has appeared onstage or in the orchestra pit in concerts, musicals, operettas and operas in 30 states and in Europe, in a career spanning more than 35 years. His Chicagoland stage credits include “Forever Plaid” at the Royal George Theater and twenty mainstage productions at Light Opera Works. Paul joined the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1995 (he was Tenor I Section Leader for four years and sings on two Grammy-winning recordings), and is one of Chicago’s foremost liturgical singers, marking 20 years as a member of the choir at St. James Cathedral (Episcopal) in 2011.He has composed and arranged a number of anthems, hymns and songs for worship and concert use, and collaborates on the creation of new works of musical theater. Paul can be found on Monday nights watching showtune videos at the world-famous Sidetrack nightclub, the inspiration for his weekly column, “The Showtune Mosh Pit.” His proudest achievement is that he has seen the original Broadway production of every Tony Award-winning Best Musical since “Cats.” No, really. Since “Cats!”
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