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Stage Review : 'Cats' Approaches Purrfection

January 14, 1985|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

"Cats" has landed on its feet at the Shubert. I wish its producers had followed their original plan and used a Hollywood sound stage for it--imagine sitting in a total surround of junk, with those cats at your elbow! I also wish Betty Buckley were singing Grizabella.

So much for might-have-beens. "Cats" at the Shubert remains one of the most imaginative and eye-pleasing musicals of the century, as original a show as its predecessor, "42nd Street," was unoriginal. And the Los Angeles company is only a whisker behind the Broadway one. In some particulars--diction, physicality--it's ahead.

Those who don't take to "Cats" dismiss it as a mere spectacle. Spectacle it is. But there's nothing "mere" about it, at least for those sitting close-in at the Shubert. From that perspective those cats sometimes are at your elbow. (I'll have a report later on how the show looks from the balcony.)

Nor does the evening deserve another adjective frequently applied to spectacle-- mindless . Certainly it speaks to the child in the viewer, who wants to believe that cats can turn half-human under the moon. But it does so with a cunning that recalls Barrie's in "Peter Pan." And as with that play, parents will see things in it that escape their children.

It's based, as the reader probably knows, on T. S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," in which Eliot salutes certain eminent cats of his acquaintance--Gus the Theatre Cat, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, etc.

In this telling, devised by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Trevor Nunn, Eliot's cats have fallen on hard times. Or is it that no cat can resist a junkyard at midnight? Anyway, each of them shows up to do a musical turn under the moon, sometimes solo, sometimes with his current lady-friend or gentleman-friend, and usually involving the ensemble, who are given very little time in this show to sit on their tails.

The most spectacular turn is Gus' (Norman A. Large). A trembling old party in a mangy coat, he suddenly casts off his years--and coat--in the second act to become, once more, the swashbuckling hero of that well-loved cat opera of yesteryear, "Growltiger's Last Stand." This has everything--a pirate ship, a kittenish heroine (Sally Spencer), a company of sly Siamese villains and lyrics in, naturally, Italian.

Composer Webber has fun sending up La Scala here. Elsewhere we find him kidding Las Vegas, the blues, the charts. (Michael Alan-Ross is super as the Rum Tum Tugger, an Elvis-type rocker with a big mane and an air of extreme self-satisfaction. We have all known cats like that.)

Droll as each routine is, some of them are quite routine. That includes Gillian Lynne's choreography (she was also the show's associate director). Lynne doesn't want this to be the chorus line at the Kit Kat Klub, and she chooses not to mime such action as Eliot's verses contain. That leaves her with a rather limited set of moves.

Happily, "Cats" is more than Possum Potpurri. It has a line, however faint, and a visual allure, very strong.

The line: It isn't just any night for these cats. It's the night that their patriarch, Old Deuteronomy (George Anthony Bell) is to select one of their number to be reborn on a higher astral plane. (John Napier's design includes a "Close Encounters" spaceship.) Who will it be? Certainly not Grizabella, who was once the queen of the back fence. Now . . . well, look at her. But don't pick her up.

It's the Mary Magdalene story again, still potent enough to bring tears to the susceptible, including me, when cued by the show's big song, "Memory." This is a serious swipe from Puccini on Webber's part and quite a brilliant one. (Minor poets borrow; major poets steal.)

Kim Criswell sang the number bravely and affectingly at the Shubert at Friday's opening, but not as affectingly as the original Grizabella, Betty Buckley. Buckley simply tore your heart out. Or was it the fact that the song was still new enough then to take you by surprise? Anyway here, our "Cats" falls short.

As for the aura, it compares. Napier's garbage-dump set is somewhat less extensive than it was on Broadway, but it remains an enchanted place under David Hersey's fairy lights--a place where despised things (squashed cereal cartons, corroded batteries, leprous footballs) take on a new life, rather like the redeemed Grizabella.

Napier is strict with himself here, as creators of imaginary landscapes ought to be. For instance, when the cats improvise a locomotive for Skimbleshanks (Thom Keeling), everything on it could conceivably have come from a junk pile, from its teapot chimney to its lawn-rake cow catcher.

As for Napier's cat costumes, the plumper ones would make marvelous stuffed toys for children and the leaner ones encourage Lynne's dancers to move like cats--very fast when car lights sweep by and, for a second, this becomes merely an ordinary auto graveyard on some back road at 2 a.m.

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