Don’t panic, Cats fans. I’m not about to scratch out the amber eyes of one of the most wildly popular stage productions of this or any other century (and don’t for a moment think that’s going to be the last feline pun in this review).
Seriously though, singing and dancing cats? Really? Just what the hell IS a Jellicle cat, anyway? All those ridiculous names: Rum Tum Tugger, Grizabella, Mungojerrie, Mr Mistoffelees (I know there’s a bunch of cats out there named Mr Mistoffelees in tribute and their owners should be neutered). Barely a memorable song, except for the song about memory, and once it gets stuck back in your head you’ll only want to forget it. The story? What story?
And boy have these crazy cats dated, nine lives lived and still purring with purpose. The synthesizer working overtime, the hair teased and permed to perfection. Watching Cats is like a wicked drug trip that wakes up in an 80s music video (and surely Andrew Lloyd Webber was on something when he devised this based on the T.S. Eliot poem Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats).
Audiences demand more now from their musical theatre; more complex narratives and characterisations with the glamour and glitz. But there will always be Cats, stuffed and placed on the theatrical mantelpiece in loving tribute. As the slogan states, now and forever.
They’re back in Brisbane now, a quarter of a century after the first litter was impounded on a London stage; after tens of thousands of performances around the world, unknown millions in ticket sales and merchandise; less art and more business, transcending theatre as some sort of strange cultural phenomenon. Gaudy and garish, camp and commercial, vapid and vivacious.
And fun. Guiltily, it is fun. Though perhaps not always for the right reasons.
Cats was always wonderfully designed (originally by John Napier), cleverly set amongst the trash and treasure of a back alley feline playground, with uniquely spectacular choreography by Gillian Lynne. But this production from Australian producers Lunchbox Theatre and David Atkins Enterprises, with new direction and steps from Jo-Anne Robinson, may be the most iridescent yet. This is a fur-flying explosion of colour and movement, with sound and lighting design more stadium rock concert than traditional musical theatre.
Fresh from successful tours of Singapore and Hong Kong, the cast is seriously slick. This is a showcase of fine young Australian performers, an ensemble in perfect tune and embracing the audience like seasoned pros.
Really, that’s the only legitimate criticism you can make of these Cats: they’re just a little domesticated. Maybe it’s all just too slick, too mechanical. The taped music (all but the drums and bass are pre-recorded) creates a flawless surround-sound experience but robs the show of the real theatre magic in a live orchestra.
Because ultimately, if you love Cats this is a welcome and dazzling return. And if you don’t? Well, don’t go and ruin it for everyone else.
Maybe I’m just more of a dog person…
Lunchbox Theatrical Productions & David Atkins Enterprises in assocation with Really Useful Group present
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber | Based on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
Venue: Lyric Theatre, QPAC | South Bank, Brisbane
Dates: 17 Jul to 9 Aug 2009
Tickets: $69.90 - $129.90
Duration: 2 hours and 45 minutes (inc. 20 min interval)