Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, David Atkins & Base Entertainment Asia
in association with The Really Useful Group
QPAC Lyric Theatre
January 29 – February 14 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
WHEN CATS ARE MADDENED BY THE MIDNIGHT DANCE
(Or: When audiences and critics are baffled by a show’s long-running runaway success).
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS is one of the most successful musicals ever, and probably one of the the most loathed. If you’ve never seen it before there’s probably still a lot to love but for audiences who have seen one or more earlier productions, this is not the one that surpasses them.
My earliest memories of CATS echo the delights of the children seeing this latest touring production, which comes to us from London Palladium. I think the harshest critics, especially those of us who have had to sit through this show more than once, forget that everything is always new to somebody. I grew up on a steady diet of Lloyd Webber, Rogers & Hammerstein and Sondheim so I’m not actually one of the harshest critics. Nostalgia always counts for something, doesn’t it? When I first saw CATS (I was still in primary school) I was full of wonder and curiousity, intrigued by the ramshackle junkyard setting and the feline beauty of the performers in their costumes and makeup to suit each unique character. We got to traverse the stage during Interval and relived moments from the show for years afterwards. I adored the sass of Mr Macavity, the magic of Mr Mistoffolees, and the abject despair that gives way to a tiny glimmer of hope in Memory. And I loved the dancing. It’s a dance show after all; a dancer’s show.
I remember, as the lights dimmed, the thrill of hearing the first synthesised strains of the music, which we knew from wearing out the double cassette tape of the original London production soundtrack, and sensing before seeing them, cats of all colours and traits slinking through the audience, over seats and over people, purring and snuggling up to us as they made their way to the stage for the opening number. It was fantastic. We saw CATS return to Brisbane in 2010 – Poppy was four years old – and she loved it! I was underwhelmed. This time? We were both underwhelmed. Rather than write about it right away, I took off and did a show at Brisbane Powerhouse for the week before I could even think about assembling any thoughts about this production of CATS.
CATS remains one of the most rigorous shows in which a performer can be involved, and for dedicated dancers it’s great work if you can get it. (This ensemble is terrific, clear characters, solid dance and vocal parts on point). But for many of us it’s a show that’s become lost in glossy global marketing genius and the popular belief that such a long-running show must be good. This is what’s good about CATS –
- if you’re a cat-lover it’s about cats
- the dancing and random acrobatic feats are still impressive, despite the distinct Rock Eisteddfod feel to ensemble numbers
- the music, despite being more Flashdance than contemporary dance, is still memorable
- the individual cats are all unique creatures and if the lack of plot bothers you a good comparative study can be made from carefully observing the behaviour (and costume and makeup) of each
- the same can be said of the lights. Lots of lights to count…
- the set is still interesting, spilling out into the audience space.
This is what’s (still) diabolically bad about CATS –
- if you’re not a cat-lover it’s about cats
- there is a distinct Rock Eisteddfod feel to ensemble numbers
- there is not much of a plot andThe Awful Battle of The Pekes and The Pollicles is still…awful
- the clunky mechanics of the UFO-looking platform that ascends with Grizabella would be better placed in a high school production. When it grows up this piece of equipment might be seen in a Katy Perry or Pink concert.
- this time there is no Coca-Cola can in the set. Does anyone else miss the Coca-Cola can? I miss the Coca-Cola can.
- star casting, complete with contemporary pop voice does not a Grizabella make
- by far the greatest creative crime, Rum Tum Tugger has been slaughtered and hung out to dry like a crow, warning other ambitious all-singing, all-dancing boys to stay away from this role in this production.
Delta Goodrum is an elegant, once decadently languorous, now legendary Grizabella, shunned by all, and her Memory, although beautifully, powerfully delivered, is marred by her ceaseless distracting wandering and preceded by an interpretative dance that has, unfortunately, missed the kind strike of the red pen. I love Delta (my goodness, she’s so lovely on stage, that smile!), but her Grizabella not so much.
And as hard as Daniel Assetta tries to sell his Rastafarian rapping Rum Tum Tugger, my guess is that it will never win over Australian audiences. Did it wow the West End? I wonder. How could anyone possibly imagine that anything would top the sultry, sexy-as-fuck rock star we remember so, er, fondly, from previous productions??? I can’t wait to see Assetta in a role he can get his teeth and…never mind what else…into.
Christopher Favaloro shines as the leaping, twirling Mister Mistoffelees, but somebody has maybe been a little over zealous with the fire pots???
Matt McFarlane – what a gorgeous voice and a commanding presence – does a fine job of narrating the non-existent narrative as Munkastrap (Oh yes, I know, sure, for the sake of the argument, there is a synopsis, which makes vague sense as long as you’re paying attention and bearing in mind the entire concept came from a collection of poems). Josh Piterman is our other standout, in the multiple roles of Bustopher Jones, Gus & Growltiger. As Gus the theatre cat, Piterman offers a beautifully measured, nuanced performance in the tradition of the great storytellers of the British stage. I actually want to give him a hug and find his slippers for him and settle at his feet to hear more. Later, as Growltiger he sells a dramatic Italian moment, one of the highlights of the night.
Despite the few attempts to update the production, CATS stubbornly remains deeply entrenched in an awkward late seventies-early eighties time warp and if you hated it before you’ll be more than a little bemused by this production. But maybe, just maybe, THINK OF THE CHILDREN. Bite your tongue, take the kids and be prepared to suffer a little in your lycra and leg warmers.
As an exercise in suspended disbelief, this show has always been for advanced theatre-goers (or the perfectly naive), but it’s not the worst musical in the world and as a little family outing, CATS is still a bit of fun.