'CATS' Old Deuteronomy and Grizabella (photo by Joan Marcus)
'CATS' Old Deuteronomy and Grizabella (photo by Joan Marcus)

Andrew Lloyd Webber and “musicals” go together like… well, spectacle and over-the-top. And they’ve been going together like that for almost half a century. Starting with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, Lloyd Webber has been a fixture in the musical theater canon.

His musicals are lightning rods for both praise and negative criticisms, and CATS, debuting in London in 1981, is no exception. His musicals often play to a common-person denominator with easy to sing melodies and extravagantly “romantic” and emotional plots. Another device Lloyd Webber began using early was a repeating musical theme throughout the production. In CATS, this repetitive motif is the song ‘Memories,’ which debuts in the first act and is repeated a couple of more times in the second act.

CATS is now on a national tour and is in Seattle at the Paramount Theatre through Sunday, April 22nd. Tickets are available on-line at www.stgpresents.org, by calling 877-STG-4TIX (784-4849) or in person at The Paramount Theatre Box Office (Monday through Friday, 10am to 6pm). CATS celebrated its 30th anniversary on May 11, 2011, the longest continuously touring Broadway musical in history.  New for the 2011-2012 season is the reintroduction of “psychic twins” Coricopat and Tantomile, cats who are always in sync and were last seen in the Broadway production.

If you have never seen the musical, you can probably safely guess that it’s about cats. There is no real plot, and it is primarily a vehicle for ballet dance pieces. The song lyrics are almost entirely from the poet T.S. Eliot. He wrote a book, in the 1930s, called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, full of whimsical poems about cat psychology. Eliot created a tribe of cats called Jellicle cats, with fanciful names often rooted in Greek myth and the Bible, like Demeter, Old Deuteronomy, and Mistoffelees.

Eliot’s poems include some story-poems, which are included in CATS, like Growltiger’s Last Stand, where Gus, now an old cat that sits at the stage door of a theater, remembers how he used to perform on stage, himself. This is the basis for a play-within-a-play sequence where Gus becomes young Growltiger and demonstrates his exploits as a seafaring cat.

The touring production is a well-drawn and solid representation of what has become an international phenomenon. It’s almost self-perpetuating. Since so many people have seen CATS, it makes those who haven’t seen it want to see what so many have seen. The dancers and singers on tour are talented at both aspects.

The choreography is specific and sharp, with cat-like behavior well presented at every turn. Dancers appear and disappear with no reason, quietly creep, or lay low in hidey holes on stage. Every featured singer matches each song well, with no missteps or off-notes.

The key dancer, Chaz Wolcott as Mr. Mistoffelees, dazzles with his solo ballet. The singers who portray the oldest cats, Melissa Grohowski as Grizabella and Nathan Morgan as Old Deuteronomy, carry the featured songs with aplomb.

There isn’t much to this musical beyond the focus on dance and the lyrics of Eliot. The spectacle, including the infusing of stunt staging with lights, smoke, strobes, and Christmas strings of colored bulbs, keeps things visually interesting. It might be fun for young folks, and the publicity campaign seems focused on pulling in families. If you don’t expect anything else, you won’t be disappointed. That attitude can assure you a good time. If you expect more, it may appear a much bigger waste of money.

Continuing dates and cities include:

May 1-6,2012 (Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago, IL)

May 9-10, 2012 (Hamilton Place Theatre, Hamilton, ON)

May 13, 2012 (Southern Kentucky PAC, Bowling Green, KY)

Jun. 15-17, 2012 (DeVos Hall, Grand Rapids, MI)

Home Culture Theater Review: ‘CATS' National Tour