CATS Frolic at the Times Union

Cats coming together for a Jellicle Ball to sing, dance and wonder who will be the one chosen to ascend to the Heaviside layer.

CATS first opened in London, with Broadway following a year later.  Awards for both productions followed, and they even vied for the Best Musical Theater Album Grammy.  The show is one of the most internationally produced of all time and has been considered the gateway to the modern blockbuster musical and musicals becoming a global commodity.

The show is comprised of songs that derived mostly from TS Eliot’s 1939 poetry book, originally written for his godchildren, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.  Webber first started work on the show as a songwriting exercise, using Eliot’s poetry because it had been a childhood favorite of his.  If you need a show with a strong storyline, this is probably not for you.  However, if you just want an escape with joyful entertainment, this is your cup of tea.

I think CATS should be an Olympic sport, as it requires powerful ensemble talent.  Of the 26 onstage (there are six more as swings), most were tour-de-force singer-dancers, with ballet, modern, jazz, tap, and acrobatics on display.  Two were predominantly strong vocal roles:  Old Deuteronomy (Indalecio De Jesús Valentín) and Grizabella (Tayler Harris).

The cast is overall quite young, with this being a first tour for the majority.  The amount of training that must have gone into this is evident in their craft.  The choral numbers were exquisite and sounded like a soundtrack to the live orchestra accompanying them.  The group diction to not muddy the spoken portions was on point.  They had to work as a team not to run into each other with the amount of intricate choreography on a very crowded stage.

Grizabella is probably the most anticipated of the cats, as she has the most beloved song in the show, “Memory”, and Ms. Harris did not disappoint.  Mr. Valentín carried the role of the old sage beautifully.  There are a few others of note:  Bustopher Jones/Asparagus (John Anker Bow) reminded me a bit of Ben Lahr as the Cowardly Lion as Bustopher, and was a lot of fun as Gus.

Zach Bravo as Rum Tum Tugger,

with his Jagger-esqe moves was clearly a crowd-pleaser.  The there was Devon McCleskey as Munkustrap, who skillfully and understatedly wove together much of the storyline.

The set was a single junkyard with lots of lights, oversized shoes, boxes, and cans to scale with the Cats.  At the end, there were impressive mechanics to create the illusion of Deuteronomy escorting Grizabella to the Heaviside.

Each Cat had a slightly different look to their unitards, with other personalities created by putting a layer over the top.  The makeup was not pronounced, but added to the effect of the unitards, as one might expect.  If you’re sitting further back, you might want to bring binoculars to see the differences a little better.

I had one critique:  When the Cats are on the side and not central to the number, it would help the illusion if they engaged in cat-like behavior, whether grooming themselves, playing, or nuzzling.  Cats don’t sit/stand and talk to each other.

Part of the FSCJ Artist Series, CATS is at the Times-Union Feb 22-27, 2022, with performances Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., Saturday afternoons at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Ticket prices vary based on show and seating.  Masks are required in the building.  For tickets, go to fscjartistseries.org or call (904) 632-5000.

By Cessy Newmon

About Cessy Newmon