You’ve probably seen the posters around town announcing Nu Musical Theatricals’ revival of Cats, currently running at the Panasonic Theatre, proudly sponsored by Purina Cat Chow. Besides being a cute marketing gimmick ($2-off coupons in the programs!), there may be some greater logic at play here. Cats works best if you already like one of two things: Cats and cats. As the tagline suggests (“Let the memory live again . . .”), nostalgia for the original famously long-running production is an important factor here, and if you were a bit of a Broadway baby in the 1980s or ’90s, you’re an easy mark. But on another level, Cats really works best if you’re a “cat person.” The logic that drives the show and every number in it is based on anthropomorphizing feline behaviour in the way that people who just love cats so often do. If you can’t get behind the idea that a cat is haughty or devious or tragic or an awful lot like a flamboyant railway conductor, then you won’t get far with this show.
The longevity of Cats is somewhat mystifying. When Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn were adapting the poems from TS Eliot’s kid-friendly Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the Eliot estate told them that they were not allowed to add any additional text. This makes a dramatic adaptation tricky, because there is no dialogue in the Eliot, no over-arching story: no drama. The result is that, even for a musical, Cats is exceptionally plot-less. Oh, there’s something about a “Jellicle Ball” and an old cat deciding which of the assembled pussies will ascend to the “Heaviside Layer” for some mysterious kind of cat-reincarnation, but none of that is what Cats is really about. Essentially, it’s a lengthy cabaret in which a series of cats come forward and perform mostly unconnected numbers about what kind of cats they are.
The Nu Musical production doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here, although it does shrink the spectacle. The songs, choreography and costumes (which bear a stronger resemblance to Daryl Hannah’s shag-haired Blade Runner replicant than any kitty we’ve ever seen) are all intact, but the junkyard set is scaled back considerably. The one true innovation is the use of holographic projections, which the production has been pitching as a selling point, but they appear only briefly and feel more like a cost-saving measure than artistic experiment. Still, the production makes the most of what it’s got and manages to pull off a few well-orchestrated moments of whimsy, as when various bits of trash form a locomotive engine. And the cast are, for the most part, quite capable, particularly Miss Saigon‘s Ma-Anne Dionisio, who belts out the showstopper “Memory” as if each of her nine lives depends on it.
There are musicals with strong enough spines to withstand smaller, competent productions, even ones that can find new relevance in a more intimate context. But without top-notch production values, Cats starts to look less like a mega-musical and more like a furry convention in desperate need of some dramaturgy.