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Theater review: Webber’s ‘Cats’ displays visual excellence mired in plot confusion

(Courtesy of Matthew Murphy)


Through March 24

Hollywood Pantages Theatre

Prices Vary

By Jordan Holman

Feb. 28, 2019 4:56 p.m.

It’s pitch black. Not a sound can be heard when flickering lights suddenly illuminate the historical Hollywood Pantages Theatre.

The mysterious dots grow across the auditorium. Performers donning frighteningly realistic cat costumes appear in the aisles, creeping slowly onto the stage. The theater is flooded in a technicolor splendor of neon lights, revealing a once vacant alleyway that is now teeming with life.

A jumbled story of ambition and identity, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats,” running from Wednesday to March 24, is a dazzling display of feline frenzy. The musical introduces several so-called Jellicle cats living in a dingy junkyard who meet up once a year to celebrate their distinctive identity. While the cats seem to live rather disreputable lives, their personalities are each eccentric and unconventional. The premise of “Cats,” while seemingly quite simple, is riddled with complex storylines, making the oversaturated plot difficult to follow.

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The makeup and costumes, however, are eye-catching. Dark oranges hues and elaborate stripes cover practically every inch of the characters’ bodies, and multicolored wigs can be spotted even from the back of the theater. Mr. Mistoffelees’ (Tion Gaston) bedazzled blazer is the perfect representation of the designers’ obvious attention to detail. Donned with color-changing lights, this character’s flashy personality is captured by his effervescent clothing.

The production’s most impressive features were the technical elements of design, lighting and sound. During scenes of high intensity and drama, dizzying light and dark crossfades appeared on the stage in rapid succession. String lights constantly changed color depending on the mood of the piece. When Mr. Mistoffelees takes the stage, the theater is transformed into an astonishing light show that flashes to the beat of the music. As the cat passionately executes fouettes across the stage, a spotlight shines directly on him and his sparkling costume. Such performances manage to distract, at least for a moment, from the lack of cohesion elsewhere.

The first musical number, “Invitation to the Jellicle Ball,” is performed by a large ensemble of cats dressed in these creative costumes. The dance routine is sultry and sleek, evoking an intriguing sense of both danger and mystery. Elegant jumps and catlike crawls are performed in harmonious unison, uniting the cast members and highlighting the cats’ collective power, strengthening the theme of togetherness.

Audiences are then introduced to ridiculous, yet dynamic characters such as the troublemaking duo Mungojerrie (Tony d’Alelio) and Rumpelteazer (Rose Iannaccone) and their sagacious leader Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase). The former two’s mischievous nature and the latter’s peacekeeping trope serve only for entertainment purposes. These characters do not add noteworthy panache to the production. They simply reinforce the incoherent plot.

Macavity’s role in the musical does provide a moment of exhilaration, however. Macavity (Tyler John Logan), the elusive criminal, enters the scene, as the Jellicle cats scatter and ponder his imminent return. The search for him is the only steady trend throughout the musical, which overall lacks a sequential plot. Although the story weaves these cats’ lives together, the omission of a unifying concept makes the piece feel almost unfinished. And though the electrifying dances and fantastical elements are impressive, they get lost in the frazzled plot.

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The musical eventually reaches its peak during a palpable performance of “Memory” by Grizabella (Keri René Fuller), a former glamour cat who was shunned by her community. Her high-octane voice provides an emotional depth unmatched by her cast mates, and the song proves to be a moment of transcendence. The audience is engulfed in melancholic desperation, as lyrics about hopelessness and loss of identity vibrate through the theater walls. Grizabella’s gripping performance is the zenith of the cast’s talent and the production’s excitement.

The musical’s jigsawed plot is entangled with a messy series of deviations, intermixed with harmonious dance routines, intricate costumes and dynamic song lyrics – Grizabella’s “Memory” standing out as the production’s No. 1 hit. Unlike most productions with a clear beginning, middle and end, “Cats” veers from the traditional course of action. While undoubtedly creative, it leaves viewers with too many unanswered questions.

The cats’ existence possesses an underlying symbolism for the salvation of humanity and the power of communal identity, but the lack of clarity and cohesion makes that message muddled rather than powerful. However, the mesmerizing effects and design create a spectacle that makes up, at least partially, for the musical’s blemishes. The production design is the glue that holds the piece together.

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Jordan Holman
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