“Cats” Approaches Purrfection

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The national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular musical, Cats, is back for another visit to the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Having never seen the show, I wasn’t sure what to expect upon entering the theater. The place looked like a dump. Literally. The stage was creatively themed with oversized trash like old rusted washing machines, tires, and other items like giant Christmas tree lights flowed from the stage out into the theater. Turns out the story takes place in a junkyard and the human audience gets to see everything from the perspective of a cat.

The plot is suppose to be based on the poems in T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, but anything resembling a traditional plot of beginning, middle and end was never found. I spent most of Act I trying to figure out what the heck the musical was about. This surely doesn’t mean what I was seeing wasn’t enjoyable. We are introduced to the Jellicle tribe of cats and each cat sings a song to introduce them, giving us a glimpse into their personality. I’ve never owned a cat, but the cat lovers in the audience seemed to shake their heads in agreement that cats behave this way. The last cat to be introduced is Old Deuteronomy, the old patriarch of the group who will get to choose which cat gets to go up to the Heaviside Layer (whatever that is). The highlight of Act I is the last song called “The Jellicle Ball” in which all the cats sing, dance and display their powers. Gillian Lynne expertly choreographs this number as these fit dancers move with precision and in unison on the stage.

A resemblance of a traditional plot finally appears in Act II, which introduces a few more cats including the evil villain known as Macavity. This cat captures Old Deuteronomy and takes him away. The cats then introduce us to the magical cat known as Mr. Mistoffelees, who succeeds in bringing back Old Deuteronomy. Finally, as the musical comes to a close, Old Deuteronomy must make his selection as to which cat gets to go up to the Heaviside Layer. A cat named Grizabella appears and sings the famous song “Memory,” which secures her selection as the chosen cat. In what was one of many impressive special effects throughout this production, Grizabella sings while riding on a magically floating tire up into the sky. The final, humorous number called “The Ad-dressing of Cats” gives the human audience some advice on how to speak and interact with cats in the future using what they learned that evening at the show.

Overall, the plot was difficult to follow, but who really cares. Where the production lacks in story, it exceeds in music, costumes, lighting, and effects. The cast was dressed and transformed into human-sized cats using some of the most stunningly beautiful costumes seen on the stage. The lighting design was innovative and eye pleasing. It’s not surprising that this twenty-five year old Broadway hit won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Lighting and Best Costumes. This really is a family spectacle that adults and kids alike should not miss.

Cats is playing December 16-21, 2008 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.