Sure, it’s cheesy and dated, but something about Cats keeps it from becoming wincingly awful: whether it’s the large, lively cast of human felines; the eye-catching direction of Trevor Nunn; the clever, even witty, sets and costumes by John Napier; Natasha Katz’s luminous lighting; or the famous score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who already had Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita under his belt when Cats premiered in 1982 (and still had The Phantom of the Opera in his future).
It’s partially all of those, but it’s mainly what happens at the end of the first act. After an hour of synthesizer-pulsating songs (even the catchiest, like the opener “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” are afflicted with the disease) that sound like bizarre Emerson, Lake and Palmer outtakes, suddenly a sumptuous melody wells up and Grizabella sings “Memory,” one of the greatest Broadway ballads and one of those instantly memorable tunes that Webber had to hand: at least in his early musicals.
Like “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Superstar and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita, “Memory” bowls over the rest of the score and show, something which even Webber realizes: in Act II, we not only get two reprises but also variations on and hints of that hummable melody throughout. Webber, knowing he’s written his own “Yesterday,” unapologetically milks it for all it’s worth. British pop star Leona Lewis sings the hell out of it during its final incarnation at the end of the show, but the rest of her performance is stiff and wooden, which says more about her stage inexperience than about Grizabella’s aloofness.
Best of the rest of a harmonious cast are Quentin Earl Darrington’s dignified Old Deuteronomy, Eloise Kropps’ agily tap-dancing Jennyanydots and Ricky Ubeda’s astoundingly athletic Mr. Mistoffelees. It’s too bad that choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler merely spiffs up Gillian Lynne’s original choreography, which survives in the cast’s cat-like poses and movements. Why bring such an inventive—and award-winning—choreographer on board only to handcuff him?
That ultimately is the curse of this new Cats: despite Trevor Nunn’s protestations to the contrary, this is old fur in new bottles, and however entertaining, there was a missed chance to make it resonate for a new generation of theatergoers, not simply traffic in nostalgia for the older ones.
Music & lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber; directed by Trevor Nunn
Opened July 30, 2016
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York, NY