Theater review: Crowd-pleasing national tour of 'Cats' casts a spell at OKC Civic Center
An abbreviated version of this review will appear in Friday's Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman. To read my interview with Oklahoma native Keri Rene Fuller, who plays Grizabella, click here.
Theater review: Crowd-pleasing national tour of 'Cats' casts a strange spell
A fancy feast for the senses, perhaps no other mainstream musical taps into the strange magic of the live theatrical experience more nimbly than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats.”
The crowd-pleasing sung-through show certainly has nine lives: After an 18-year stint that earned seven Tony Awards and a place near the top of the list of the longest-running titles in Broadway history, the 2016 “Cats” revival was a hit, cuing the national tour playing Oklahoma City through Sunday at the Civic Center Music Hall.
Based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats,” the story is set on one full-moon night in an otherworldly junkyard as a tribe of felines called the Jellicle Cats gather for their annual ball. Aged and adored leader Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase) provides the yearly highlight when he picks one mouser to ascend to the “Heaviside Layer” to be reborn.
The episodic narrative focuses largely on meeting the Jellicle Cats through song and dance. Although the synth-heavy score, played with flawless intensity by the orchestra, dates it to the 1980s, Lloyd Webber’s compositions and the late Gillian Lynne’s choreography, freshened for the revival by “Hamilton” standout Andy Blankenbuehler, incorporate a variety of styles, including jazz, ballet and folk.
The fancifully named felines include Rum Tum Tugger (McGee Maddox), a fickle and seductive rock star type; Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Tony d’Alelio and Rose Iannaccone), twin troublemaking cat burglars; and Bustopher Jones (Timothy Gulan), a classy gourmand.
The tribe members also make their nominations for the cat to be reborn, including Jennyanydots (Emily Jeanne Phillips), a seemingly lazy tabby who at night schools the mice and cockroaches via a zesty tap number; Gus (Gulan again), an aged theater cat who recounts his former acting glory; and Grizabella (Oklahoma native Keri Rene Fuller), a former "glamour cat" now broken and banished by her tribe.
With a plot thinner than a starving alley cat, the show is really about creating an immersive theatrical experience using makeup, wigs, costumes, music, dance and stage effects. Although it starts off a bit slowly, the national tour production mostly succeeds in drawing the audience into the Jellicles’ oddball dramas, helped immensely by committed performances and Natasha Katz’s shining lighting design, which includes strands of party lights strung right off the stage and up to the boxes. It may not always make the most sense or succeed in completely captivating, "Cats" always manages to be at least interesting.
Katz’s work and John Napier’s costume designs are coupled with a superbly sprightly turn by Tion Gaston as “the original conjuring cat” on the showstopper “Magical Mister Mistoffelees.” And it wasn’t just hometown love that prompted the crowd to erupt in exuberant cheers as Fuller delivered a rousing rendition of the beloved ballad “Memory.”
A movie version of “Cats,” directed by “Les Miserables” filmmaker Tom Hooper and starring Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift and Idris Elba, is set for December release, but it’s hard to imagine that the cinematic treatment will match the theatrical spell-casting of seeing the glow of the cats’ eyes illuminate the stage or an elaborately costumed performer gambol with catlike grace up the aisles.
Some magic simply must be experienced live and in person to achieve its full effect.
When: 7:30 tonight, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N Walker.
Tickets and information: 594-8300 or www.okcbroadway.com.