When the lights dimmed and fog filled the stage, a dozen human-sized felines scampered into the theater and leapt onstage, ducking quickly into hidey-holes in a cat-scaled junkyard. The lights flashed, and Andrew Lloyd Webber's familiar score filled the hall and everything happened just like it's supposed to during the musical Cats. This is one heckuva tough show to pull off -- the costumes and makeup alone would test anybody's stamina -- and everyone involved in Coeur d'Alene Summer Theater's production of Cats deserves credit for making it work.
But if you're looking for a rich storyline or a musically complex and challenging score, you're not going to find it in Cats. After 20-plus years, I think everyone knows that by now. But if you want to see some talented singers and dancers strut their stuff while they draw you into a fantasy playground, then check it out. And if you've never seen the show that set the bar for megamusicals -- do I actually see, with my own very eyes, a person who's not seen Cats? -- well, what are you waiting for?
While felines get as much respect as any domesticated creature in our anthropocentric world, Cats gets no respect. The final song of the show is a plea for respect and kindness to cats, sung by the cats' revered leader Old Deuteronomy, played here with delightful gravitas by baritone William Rhodes. Given all the nasty things that have been said about the show in the name of art, the song could be sung on behalf of the show itself.
For the one or two of you who don't know already, the show is basically a series of character sketches stitched together with the thinnest thread of a story -- but that's exactly what it's meant to be. The tunes lack the depth of Sondheim, but they're nothing if not hummable. Lord knows I haven't been able to get the songs out of my head. On the other hand, I think most cats would find this portrayal of their kind laughable -- or, more precisely, unworthy of attention.
Still, among our species, the show is popular. No, the show is wildly successful -- off the charts, more popular than any other show in the history of Broadway. When the show's 18-year run on Broadway finally ended in September 2000, critics grudgingly named it the Joe DiMaggio of musical theater for its longevity. (That's a big compliment in New York, by the way.)
Twenty years ago, I saw Cats during the first national tour. Back then, it was one of the hottest tickets in town; I spent $70 for two balcony seats at a mid-week matinee and counted myself lucky to get in. What struck me then about the show was the spectacle of it, and that's what has stayed with me. Certainly, some of the criticism aimed at the show is honestly deserved. But let's recall how many people may have gone to the theater for the first time in order to see Cats. Who knows how many caught the bug and continue to support live theater?
That performance, when the show was new and fresh off winning seven Tony awards, is my standard. It's a tough standard to match, but the CST folks did a good job of capturing that old energy and magic.
Among the cast, several individuals really gave the show its spark. At Cats, you expect to hear a knockout rendition of "Memory" -- the headline song that's been recorded by nearly 200 artists -- and Thara Cooper does not disappoint. She delivers the vocal firepower and the emotion that goes with it. But it's the other roles that make or break the show, despite Grizabella's status as the star. Particularly strong are the versatile Christopher Moll as Munkustrap, who often functions as narrator, and Steve Booth as the rock-star-esque Rum Tum Tugger -- or the Rum Rum Tigger, as my seat neighbor so delightfully dubbed him. Both roles emphasize the vocals, and these two actors delivered the goods.
Among the dancers, Katie Ward made an exquisitely dainty Victoria, all in white. Ross Cornell showed off his "conjuring turns" as the magical Mr. Mistofelees. And Kendal Hartse in the dual role of Jennyanydots (The Gumbie Cat) and Jellylorum displayed both tap-dancing and modern dance skills, along with some fine vocals. Her duet with Roger Welch, playing Gus the Theater Cat, is a sweetly wistful and touching tribute to a cat who is "no longer in his prime." The dance production number, "The Jellicle Ball," showed off the skills of the entire company and reminded me how much fun watching good dance can be.
CST plays with the order of the musical numbers a bit, deleting three numbers and moving one from the second act to the first. Given the sketch-like structure of the show, the change of order has little effect. And, frankly, the pieces that were deleted add nothing to the skimpy plot line -- no harm, no foul.
So go. Follow the light of the Jellicle Moon, leave your critic's hat at home and enjoy a true theater spectacle.