Like the proverbial cockroach in an apocalypse, CATS The Musical endures, dominating stages worldwide with barely a break. Unlike the cockroach, however, the show is eagerly embraced and adored by many.
It’s a spectacle, and while it’s not quite as stunning as it was when it opened in 1981 London – ushering in the era of the musical blockbuster – long-running spectacles are great fodder for nostalgic consumer cash.
And our commercial musical theatre producers will choose the cash grab over a show’s quality every time.
So here we are in Australia in 2015, awful lyrics, tepid plot and all, for another round with the Jellicle Cats (for the existence of which, don’t forget, you can blame T.S Eliot).
The show is heavily dated. The set (by John Napier) and its moving parts have a touch of the old-fashioned to them these days, and the music, which is heavily synthesized within the painfully reduced orchestra, has not carried well into 2015.
And for a show about cats, it still sure has no problem drawing on problematic racial stereotypes with their “Mongolian hordes,” and the rap-adjacent vocals and design of the new Rum Tum Tugger (a very game Daniel Assetta) are, at best, thoughtless cultural appropriation.
The only magic, such as it is, that there is left to find in this production can only come from the performers themselves. Luckily, our Australian ensemble of felines are something else: they move with feline grace and dance like quicksilver. Gillian Lynne’s revisited choreography is a little repetitive and creaky at the edges but it remains highly technical, demanding, and precise, and the ensemble delivers on its demands with ease. The dancing is, on the whole, better than the singing (with one notable exception), but that’s to be expected.
Christopher Favaloro provoked spontaneous applause on opening night with ballet athleticism and a la seconde turns as Mister Mistoffelees, the cat magician; Ross Hannaford brings genuine life and joy, for a moment, to the stage as railway cat Skimbleshanks, and Josh Piterman’s turns as Bustopher Jones, Asparagus, and Growltiger are carefully realised and lovingly drawn.
And then there is Australian pop royalty Delta Goodrem, who makes her musical theatre debut as rejected glamour cat Grizabella. Her Grizabella has a gently sad demeanour that’s surprisingly affecting; her self-conscious loping hints at deeper sorrows, and when she performs the shamelessly emotional eleven o’clock number “Memory” with sensitive phrasing and surprisingly nuanced power, it’s almost a real cri de couer.
‘Memory’ still working on stage, or working this time, with Our Delta, isn’t enough to justify CATS’ constant presence in our musical theatre industry, though maybe there’s an argument for keeping alive a vehicle for our best ensemble performers and dancers, with a new team having a look at it rather than the old one revisiting it over and over – but the only way to get real value out of seeing this production is, probably, to love the show already.