“The whole tree was alive with howling cats, and at the very top was enthroned my [a cat], his back arched, playing . . . on a bagpipe, while the other cats, uttering bloodcurdling cries, were dancing about him in the branches.” This description of musical and dancing cats from Brentano’s “Picnic of Mores the Cat” could very well describe the staging of “Cats” at the Opera House of the Kennedy Center in the current production of the seminal Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Make that tree a junkyard, of course, and add a plethora of stringed multi-colored lights extending from the stage to high above the audience. If a show can get away with one setting while using little in the way of props during the whole production, it is “Cats.”
The current production is a reminder — a “Memory,” if you will! – that word of mouth made “Cats” a pop culture phenomenon and with good reason. “Cats” consists of many different styles of music such as Andrews Sisters-style vocals, swing, choir, and rock and roll as well as dancing styles such as ballet and tap dancing. It is all singing and no dialogue, so opera and the classical genre are also included in the mix. In short, everyone is sure to enjoy part of the show, and this makes “Cats” accessible as always, but particularly in a spectacular production such as this.
Somehow, “Cats” makes the avant-garde accessible, and the audience connected particularly with Grizabella ascending to heaven. These different cats on stage represent perhaps different human beings, such as the rich “fat cat,” gluttony being one of the seven deadly sins. Even more darkly, they might represent something worse: P.J. DiGaetano plays to frenetic advantage Mistoffelees, a “Cats”-sized Mephistopheles. We noted a red moon rises after Mistoffelees appears, a reference to the hellish nature of the devil taking over?
“Memory” was heard three or four times and yet sounded fresh every time. Such is the power of the anthem of the modern musical theatre. Keri René Fuller plays Grizabella, and her “Memory” specifically at the close of Act I and the reprise in Act II were powerful, individualistic interpretations. Brandon Michael Nase plays Old Deuteronomy and is similarly in fine form. Although no cats are mentioned in the biblical book of Deuteronomy, there is a Deuteronomy sequence in the musical “Cats,” a reference to proverbs, and even a heavenwards ascension at the end of the play of one of the cats. During the portion of “Old Deuteronomy,” the excellent “Cats” Orchestra directed by Eric Kang strikes a dissonant, non-Western minor key when Deuteronomy is mentioned in the song. While on the subject of music and sound, the sound mix was excellent. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and director Trevor Nunn add massively to the success of the proceedings.
There are bits of humor: the vanity license plate of the junkyard car reads “NAP,” presumably referring to a “cat nap.” The felines move, bounce, caress, and we suspect even purr like cats! As part of the show, the “Cats” actors and actresses rove and prowl around the aisles in the Kennedy Center chanting to the audience. We suppose “with Cats, some say, one rule is true: Don’t speak till you are spoken to.” So writes T.S. Eliot in his “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” on which the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical is based.
All in all, a memorable production of “Cats!” “Cats” plays through October 6 in this nearly “purr-fect” production!
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes.
“Cats,” now playing through October 6, 2019 at The Kennedy Center. Visit online for more information.