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STAGE REVIEW : Sound Advice to Producers of 'Cats'

July 21, 1988|RAY LOYND

Dear Producers:

Caught your national touring company's opening of "Cats" at the Pantages Tuesday. Saw it but didn't really hear it.

The orchestrations were clear, but those whimsical, delicate, affectionate lyrics and verses of Mr. T. S. Eliot's were so muffled and muddied that I missed the spell the show is supposed to cast.

In truth, I had seen the show before so I knew about the special ritual of these city cats under the great white moon in that wonderful garbage dump of a set. It's happenstance that "Cats' " original director Trevor Nunn and original designer John Napier also have "Les Miserables" in that other theater across town. It would sure have been nice, though, if one of them had taken the time to look into the sound design for "Cats."

Of course, "Cats" is now 7 years old and still packs them in. But can anything be done to improve this fourth road company's diction and vocal clarity? These complaints have been aired before, with other productions. Does anybody care? Where was sound designer Martin Levan? And don't be quick to blame the Pantages Theatre for poor acoustics. It's not that simple.

I had a good seat in the 10th row and missed about half the lines. Probably more. What hurt were the choral passages. The production is loaded with them, and I doubt that I caught one of them.

We're talking T. S. Eliot here (his 1939 "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats"). What we're left with is a feline spectacle and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. That's not cat litter, but it's not catnip either.

To be fair, one of the show's sturdier figures, Charles Lubeck (an understudy actually), enjoys bell-like diction. And the hit number that by now everyone waits for, "Memory," deeply touched a nerve in a showstopping rendition by Donna Lee Marshall, before her old hooker cat Grizabella passes into another realm in that Steven Spielberg-ian spaceship.

When the end came at 10:40 p.m., most of the house was on its feet. But it was a long wait. I have to tell you that at the intermission things did not look good. There was the palpable sense that few people knew what was going on.

It may be midnight in that barricade-like giant ash-can of a back alley (choice turf for cats, some of whom could have been created by Ralph Bakshi), but the show is too often lit in the color of charcoal. Listening to words you can't decipher in semi-darkness is a challenge.

The good news is that the second act picked up strongly and found a little of the show's childhood magic. If I were to do it again, I would arrive just for the second act.

Admittedly, one can ignore the language and indulge the surface flash, the dancing, the funny ship's pirate number, the fairy lights strung to the balcony, the cat people springing and pouncing in that truly inspired collection of tales and flying fur.

The costumes never get tiresome (Napier again). But is that what this show's seven 1982 Tonys have been reduced to? Sinuous cats' paws and lost verse?

You move the company to the Pasadena Civic Auditorium (Sept. 6-11), another cavern of a house, and to Orange County Performing Arts Center (Sept. 20-25). The bigger the house, the more this show disappears. Maybe you can put the book and lyrics back into the music by then. Assign your first string. Give the new (and returning) patrons a break.

Performances run at 6223 Hollywood Blvd., tonight through Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 7:30 p.m., matinees Saturday, Sunday, 2 p.m.; ends Sunday. Tickets: $20.50-$32.50. (213) 410-1062.

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