Since its debut in the early 1980s, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats has not only become a classic but also has been divisive — people seem to either love it or hate it. Based on T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, the musical follows a tribe of cats on a night Eliot referred to as “the Jellicle choice” — when a cat is chosen to be reborn to a new life on what's known as the “Heaviside Layer.”
As an avid musical fan myself, I was excited to finally see the iconic show at its Hollywood Pantages tour stop. I'm a fan of other Webber classics including Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, but I'd never seen Cats. Would I enjoy it as much? Despite being very excited to hear the timeless show tune “Memory” performed live and in its original context, my answer was a resounding no.
I knew what to expect from the semi-ridiculous costumes and the fact that the musical is literally about the feline species. What bothered and surprised me was that there is simply no story, no character development and no real attempt to explain what the hell is happening onstage. The format sees each cat pouncing into his or her own song and/or dance number, and then, thoughtlessly, it's on to the next.
There is no time to fall in love with or get attached to any of the characters because, after being introduced to one, we don't really see or hear anything more until ages later (perhaps in the context of another cat or in a second song later on).
Some storyline is attempted, such as when the cat patriarch Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase) is captured and impersonated by evil cat Macavity (Tyler John Logan) — the villain of the piece — but then Deuteronomy appears out of nowhere in the middle of the second act. It's all so convoluted and confusing that I had to read the show's synopsis on Wikipedia during intermission — and I was still lost in the second act even after doing so. Again, perhaps that's simply because there's no real plot to synopsize.
The production itself — the lights, the staging, the effects and the incredible dancing and choreography — is the definite high point (the cats break the fourth wall and not only address the audience directly but also come off the stage and into the aisles numerous times). The show's great to look at but it isn't really musical theater. It's more like an impressionist painting onstage, with its success depending on each audience member's personal take. If you're there to watch some great singing and dancing, you'll love it. If you expect some solid story and character development, as I do, you're left bewildered, and wanting more.
And then there's “Memory,” which is sung twice — once as a shortened prelude right before an odd intermission that finds Old Deuteronomy sitting onstage staring at the theater for its entire duration, and again in full force near the end of Act 2. But Keri René Fuller (last seen in Waitress) as Grizabella in this production gives an underwhelming performance. Perhaps I'm just used to hearing Barbra Streisand's classic cover, but Fuller seems to lack the powerhouse vocals the song requires, despite having a generally strong voice.
Overall, even though a bunch of things happen, when it's all over, it feels like nothing happened at all. The dancing and singing is incredible, but I didn't sign up for a dance showcase or a concert, I wanted to see musical theater. Though Old Deuteronomy sings in the final song, “The Ad-dressing of Cats”: “You've heard of several kinds of cat/And my opinion now is that/You should need no interpreter/To understand our character,” only the first part is true. The second part of that lyric is not at all. None of these cats developed further than their introductions. As Grizabella sings, “When the dawn comes/Tonight will be a memory too,” and sadly that couldn't come soon enough.
Cats at Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; through Sunday, March 24; tickets and info at hollywoodpantages.com/cats.