In the first week of May, the touring production of Cats the Musical opened for its week long stint in Chicago. For a little bit of history, Cats the Musical is based off a collection of poems from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot, the musical itself was composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber with Lyrics by Trevor Nunn. On the Great White Way, Cats is currently the second longest running musical, surpassed only by Phantom of the Opera (another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical).
When Cats was on Broadway, I never got a chance to see it live, and I don’t believe I ever saw it live on stage. When the video of a stage production came out in 1998, I was more than content with that version that I could watch on my leisure, that is until I realized that there was a scene/song cut from the original production that was not in the film production. If you are a huge fan of Cats then you would know that I am referring to: Growltiger’s Last Stand, incorporating either ‘The Ballad Of Billy M’Caw’ or the Italian aria ‘In Una Tepida Notte’.
My understanding is that Cats is such a long show that most groups that even attempt to put this production together are likely to cut and carve and snip away to make it easier for either their cast, or the audience wouldn’t think that this was such a long show to bear through. This is such an intensive dancing and singing production that it requires a very strong cast that can do both efficiently and brilliantly. This touring production did just that.
For anyone that knows the video production inside and out like I do will easily find themselves wondering if seeing a live production of Cats would be worth it, and I will be the first to say that unequivocally “YES! Seeing this production live is well worth it.” The one thing that seeing the production on stage does that you can’t see from the comfort of your home is when the camera focuses on a character or group of characters you miss out on all the little nuances that is happening all around them that fills up the stage. Anyone that knows me well knows that I am a huge fan of filling in the spaces in between mainly because that is a reflection of reality, nobody ever stops for a “star of the moment” everyone is always doing something.
One thing I did notice is that a fair chunk of the choreography is virtually verbatim to that of the video production. As I was watching the production unfold onstage, I found myself thinking, “ok, I’ve seen that, what’s going on every where else”. For me after seeing the video, I was able to look elsewhere to see what everyone else is up to so I wouldn’t have to pay attention to what was happening front and center.
However, this particular production had dance sequences that were extended from the video production and because there is an actual audience there was a fair amount of audience interaction and walking / crawling through the aisles. The cast made full use of the house floor for the opening sequences of both acts, they also didn’t just shut the lights and start the show, they actually had the cast walking / crawling in from all over the main floor and playing with the audience or looking around as if taking in their surroundings before the lights slowly dimmed. In fact during Intermission, Old Deuteronomy can be found sitting on stage as the audience milled and walked around!
There were moments within the singing that was definitely different from the video production particularly noticeably is the phrasing in “The Naming of Cats” towards the beginning of the show. There were a few lyrics that were changed in a few songs and the obvious cut was “The Awful Battle of The Pekes and the Pollicles” in favor of “Growltiger’s Last Stand” (which in this production included the Italian aria ‘In Una Tepida Notte’). In many ways I was happy about this particular variation from the video production, but knowing that there is another version of “Growltiger’s Last Stand” which includes ‘The Ballad Of Billy M’Caw’ will probably be the only driving force in me wanting to see another production of Cats live again.
Most of the cast was pretty predictable if you know the video production, with each actor adding their own little nuances to their character whenever possible, but the major deviation noticed amongst the cast was the actor that played Rum Tum Tugger: Chris Stevens. Where the video production’s actor of Rum Tum Tugger (John Partridge) tended to strut and pose quite a bit… Chris Steven’s Rum Tum Tugger did everything in his power to get attention… to the point of being the comedic relief in the show. Not necessarily a bad thing, and it didn’t really deter the audience that much from what was happening on the rest of the stage, but somehow he did it in such a way that it never got annoying.
In fact, what I loved about Chris Steven’s portrayal of Rum Tum Tugger is how full out he was with his characterization. Constant motion, bumping and grinding, and seemingly begging for attention although not literally begging, more of a “hey, look at me! Look at how awesome I am” attention. Staying true to character, he even went into the audience during an instrumental break and actually danced with someone in the audience. She went full out and bump and grind with him, which caused a lot of cheers from the audience.
Speaking of feline attention hoarders, let’s talk about the Magical Mister Mistoffelees as portrayed by Chaz Wolcott. Mistoffelees and Rum Tum Tugger have a very unusual friendship going on throughout the production, almost as unusual as the flirtation between Rum Tum Tugger and Bombalurina. They both love attention in different ways, and if by some insane twist of fate their desire for attention crosses paths well then… let the battle begin!
I remember hearing via the grapevine that dancers portraying Mr Mistoffelees are given some of the most difficult choreography in the show (including 24 fouettés en tournant – which technically is not as bad as in Swan Lake where it is 32 fouettés en tournant, but that’s a different story). Mistoffelees is probably the most acrobatic and technical dancer in the show (with the girl playing Victoria tending to be the female equivalent to Mistoffelees) with whomever dancing it tending to have extensive gymnastics and/or dance training. It is of no wonder that Chaz does the character with such ease, he has done this role before at the Music Theatre of Wichita’s production of Cats.
Granted, when watching the Magical Mr Mistoffelees, I did wonder how would he “appear” and “disappear” without the use of video special effects. The “appearance” to me was noticeable, only because I knew to expect it and there was no real “disappearance” for Mistoffelees, but I suppose that is just as well.
But enough about certain members of the cast, the set was incredible to see. Very similar to the video production, you start to see where it is different from the start of “The Old Gumbie Cat” where Jennyanydots is revealed. The most significant of the set changes from the video production come from when the cast take bits of pieces from the junkyard to form the train during “Skimbleshanks”. During the video production some of the pieces were taken from the trunk of a car in the junkyard, whileas in the tour production everything was taken from throughout the junkyard. When watching the show I didn’t realize that a fair number of pieces from the set can be easily separated from the main set when needed for creating the train, until the train was being put together… and that just speaks volumes of the well designed set and staging.
The one thing that made this production of Cats a treat to see live is simply by sticking around to see what happens towards the very end. After all the song and dance, after the show itself has reached its conclusion and the cast has given their bows: there is an encore done to the song The Magical Mr Mistoffelees. You will see a bit of an attention-hoarding tug-of-war between Mistoffelees and Rum Tum Tugger… AND you get to see a little bit more of the push-and-pull between Rum Tum Tugger and Bombalurina.
In the end, I was very glad that I got to see Cats the Musical live on stage and definitely was not disappointed with what I saw. Seeing this live as opposed to just watching the video production was by far a richer experience especially being able to see what everyone else is doing when the camera isn’t focused on them specifically.