Review: Refreshed Choreography and the Familiar Keeps ‘Cats’ Entertaining

By Kim Jackson

Welcome to a junkyard full of feline prowlers! The North American tour of Cats, based on the 2016 Broadway revival, is enchanting audiences who revere this musical and entertaining the uninitiated.

I must admit that my memory of this show is a tad bit sketchy since I last saw it over 30 years ago at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre. What I do remember about that production though was the realism of the performers — actors dressed as cats, padding and pouncing like actual felines. In this production, Andy Blankenbuehler’s re-invigorated choreography feels more modern, sleek, slinky, and agile, a fresh approach to Gillian Lynn’s original choreography.

A couple of numbers have obviously been updated, even noticeable to my faulty recollection. Rum Tum Tugger (a very sexy McGee Maddox) channels his inner Gene Simmons and flirts with the audience on and off the stage. Magical Mister Mistoffelees (a nimble Tion Gaston) dazzles with a tuxedo of ever-changing colors that feels like a homage to those 1980s MTV music videos. And Grizabella sports a Tim-Burton goth look that is reflective of her haunting signature number. Keri René Fuller’s rendition of Memory  is truly beautiful.

Andrew Lloyd Webber composed this musical based on T.S. Elliot’s book of poems, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, published in 1939. Given its simple premise, an annual gathering of cats to determine which feline will be selected for reincarnation, the emphasis is on the visual spectacle from the costumes to the choreography. That’s what audiences have come to expect from this classic show, and that’s what is so beloved about it.

In this production, Act One felt a little bit slow, even as each number flowed to the next without pause. Fortunately, the pace quickened after intermission, with energetic ensemble performances of The Awful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles, and the always delightful Macavity, The Mystery Cat.

Upon exiting the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) Wednesday night, many patrons raved that this was the best production yet. Few seemed to be bothered by some of the show’s flaws and left humming the familiar songs. Perhaps the true magic here is the final cavorting of cats onstage that is sure to send audiences home smiling, despite the presence of a hairball or two.

Cats runs through Sunday at the Durham Performing Arts Center. For more information visit: https://www.dpacnc.com/.

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