Encore Michigan

The “Cats” people have come to Detroit

Review September 05, 2019 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.–Oh, the earworm. “Memory…all alone in the moonlight.” You know what I am talking about. It is the new “c” word. Cats is back. It’s on tour, making a much anticipated stop at the Fisher Theatre, and it will soon be a movie that Cats lovers and cat lovers will no doubt flock to like..well…like cats upon hearing the electric can opener sound.

When Andrew Lloyd Weber opened Cats in 1982, it was both hailed and reviled. It was totally fresh and new. But at the same time people expressed “WTF” long before anyone was able to text that acronym. It ran for 18 years, and set the record for longest running musical. That has since been eclipsed by Weber’s own Phantom. Let’s face it, ALW knows how to make a buck.

Going to Weber’s shows and paying top dollar, though, can often feel like being asked out to dinner and being served fancy macaroni and cheese. But here’s the thing: most people love the comfort of macaroni and cheese. Weber is the master of Mac ‘N Cheese theater.

For those too young to young to have seen Cats in the original form, it is essentially an “idea show.” What if we anthropomorphized a clowder of cats (look it up) who occupy a junkyard, and we make sure to put them in glorious costumes that reflect the array of markings among cats–tabbies, patchwork, tuxedos, etc.–and gave them characterization and songs that reflect the different ages and personalities of cats that “cat people” know exist if you have ever hung around a group of cats or owned a succession of cats.

There is not so much an arc to the story, but rather themes–of community and aging and social order based on expertise (as mousers for example) and how we respect and look after one another, or not, in a society. That is perhaps the most redeeming aspect of the show.

Indeed, Cats is not so much a play, or a musical as it is a dance recital with singing and an idea behind it.

And if you are a cat person, you have no problem following the personalities and interplay, for example, between older cats and younger, more aggressive cats trying to prove themselves. Prowling cats versus stay-at-home watching Netflix cats. What story there is was borrowed from a T.S. Eliot work “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” The whisper of actual plot is about which cat will be chosen by the lord of the cat kingdom, Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase), to ascend to the “Heaviside Layer” on the night of the annual “Jellicle Ball.”

The cast of the revival is pretty darn good with some notable standouts who are helped by the writing, which is better for some of the kitties than others. Emily Jeanne Phillips inhabits a puffy fat-cat suit as Jennyanydots, and she is quite lovable as the cat clearly extra adept at mousing since these cats are not being fed Fancy Feast. McGee Maddox as Rum Tum Tigger is a glam rock cat who borrows a little from Tim Curry’s role in Rocky Horror it seems to me, thrusting his hips around as the persnickety rock star of the garbage dump.

The big characters, though are Timothy Gulan as as Gus (short for Asparagus), the theater cat, who delivers a heartfelt reminiscence of a stage career in one of the show’s most moving songs. And there is Keri Renee Fuller as Grizabella, who gets the show’s signature song, Memory, is the “glamour cat” whose ingenue days are long past.

The big signature song is visited twice before Grizabella exits in the show’s signature scene, hoisted away to the next life of her nine in total.

As the story takes place through the night, lighting design by Natasha Katz is exceptional, with the moon in the background casting dramatic changes in light throughout. Set design of the junkyard is bigger than life and nicely scaled to that which would be the case for cats  roaming about tires and a car, etc.

Cats, directed by Trevor Nunn, is as much a ballet as it is musical theatre, though there are also a few turns of delightful tap dancing, all arranged by choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, which is based on the original choreography of Gillian Lynne.

Cats is a show, but it is also a phenomenon. It is a guilty pleasure to people who are cat people and who love the music and spectacle. It is to be celebrated by throngs like a Barry Manilow concert or a solid production Mamma Mia. It is not high-brow, but what of Weber’s is.

Cuddle up in your seat with a memory of your favorite cat and enjoy. Preferably after or before a bowl of steaming mac ‘n cheese.

Click here for tickets

Week of 11/27/2023

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