Cats is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s longest-running creations (35 years and going strong since its West End debut in 1981). Trevor Nunn (original director) and Gillian Lynne (original choreographer) and Lloyd Webber created the feline musical based on a collection of poems by T.S. Elliot, peeking into the true lives of cats through a series of vignettes and colourful characters.
Many of the opening night audience in Adelaide had seen the production before and there is no doubt that the nostalgia is high with memories of first visits to the Festival Theatre and the magic of theatre being presented in what was a very different way at the time… people as cats? Who would have thought!?
The production calls for immense skills from its performers. Every individual on stage must become their particular cat, with mannerisms and quirks befitting many a cat the audience no doubt has in their own family. Each performer must also have exceptional athleticism and physicality to handle the vast range of never-ending choreography and acrobatics… and then on top of it all, they belt out tune after tune in the rock opera of varying styles from jazz to anthem and everything in between.
The current company has all of this talent in spades. There is not one weak link and it is when the ensemble work as one that they are the most spectacular. No matter where a performer is on stage (or even amongst the audience), their energy and focus is intent and specific. This is something that has lacked in recent big musicals and is a testament to the dedication of all involved.
To pull out favourites is difficult, as Cats is first and foremost an ensemble piece. However, Delia Hannah reprises the role of Grizabella, returning to Adelaide in the role a little wiser and with a greater depth of understanding. Her interpretation of ‘Memory’ (no doubt with immense pressure put upon it) is admirably individual to her particular character choices (the big belt in the second act reprise brought shivers).
Jason Wasley brings gravitas and a stunning voice to the idolised Old Deuteronomy, Matt Edwards oversees the kittens with all the alpha guardianship required as Munkustrap, Holly Meegan is delightful and leads an awesome tap number as Jennyanydots, Amy Berrisford (as Bombalurina) and Erin James (as Demeter) bring down the house with the raunchy ‘Macavity’ that is both physically and vocally a highlight of the second act. The list goes on and on, with other stand-outs including Ross Hannaford’s officious and endearing Skimbleshanks (the railway cat), Samantha Morley (Jellyorum) and Josh Piterman as Asparagus in ‘Gus: The Theatre Cat’.
One of the joys of this production, which Gus the Theatre Cat so wisely notes himself, is that modern musicals just don’t have the same magic as their retro counterparts. The magic of Cats is the tactile feeling of the production. The practical set, with cats running in and out of tunnels, through old car boots and over tyres. The lighting uses the texture of the design to create shadows and depth to the stage and there isn’t a single LED screen in sight. Everything is practical and “lived-in”. It is this nostalgia for the theatre that carries through the whole production.
Cats is however not going to suit all theatre-goers. ‘Updates’ are evident throughout this revival but it’s the character of The Rum Tum Tugger who has undergone the most significant change. Daniel Assetta works hard in the new role, with plenty of “street” energy and acrobatic skill but ‘The Rum Tum Tugger’ rap feels out of place in a score full of synth and distinctly eighties themes.
The eighties costumes – lycra and leg warmers – will be retro for some, yet dated for others and Rum Tum Tugger’s new costume, although cool as a stand-alone idea, does not mesh with the rest of the design.
The score is not Lloyd Webber’s best offering, the plot is non-existent and there are only short moments to engage with characters, leaving everything feeling shallow. The opportunity to make repetitive passages in the score more succinct has been sorely missed with this update.
These observations aside, the current Australian tour of Cats has everything a theatre-goer could want in live theatre, particularly if they’re a cat-lover with a penchant for the retro. The number of children in the audience was fantastic to see and it is heart-warming to know that their experience at the theatre showcases skilled performers in a textured, live theatre environment.