'Cats': Shedding Its Lustrous Coat

The doggedness (or is it cattedness?) of a plucky cast can't overcome the tour's scenic and orchestral shortcomings.
The doggedness (or is it cattedness?) of a plucky cast can't overcome the tour's scenic and orchestral shortcomings. (By Joan Marcus)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 8, 2007

The omnipresent "Cats" continues to expand the theater's notion of a hit, pouncing into the Warner Theatre this week on a 25th-anniversary tour when it's barely been away.

This comes as "The Producers" is hanging it up on Broadway after a mere six years, reportedly leaving some of its pooh-bahs regretting that they'd allowed Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick to become such big deals. Producing foolproof shows, post-"Cats," means the performers should be anonymous and interchangeable -- that the work itself should be the draw. Against that, big-time musicals requiring musical theater stars hardly stand a chance.

The paradox of the current "Cats," though, is that its once-astounding production is less than awesome, from the undermanned band in the pit (three horns, no strings, a handful of keyboards) to the flattened quality of John Napier's famous giant junkyard set. It's not threadbare -- David Hersey's active lighting design still cuts through clouds of stage fog, and a huge tire levitates as Grizabella is escorted a la "Close Encounters" to the Heaviside Layer -- but it's not the enveloping experience that left critics helpless as "Cats" won seven Tony Awards and settled in for historic runs on Broadway and the road.

Yet this production is kept alive by an extremely plucky (if anonymous and interchangeable) cast. They've put on the elaborate makeup, squeezed into the painted leotards and furry wigs, and must've gamely told themselves before facing the half-empty theater on Tuesday night, "By golly, we're in 'Cats'!"

They perform as if it really means something, bless their hearts. As Rum Tum Tugger, Dave Schoonover grins and swivels his hips as if there were nothing else he'd rather do. Mark Donaldson's Mungojerrie and Joanna Silvers's Rumpleteazer have an infectious sense of playfulness, even though Gillian Lynne's twirl-and-tumble choreography leaves them (and us) winded.

If some of the big ensemble numbers are a bit ragged, it's hard not to blame Lynne. Her acrobatic choreography has always been long on energy and short on invention (and if that doesn't define musicals post-"Cats," nothing does). Cartwheels, handsprings, the dozen-plus pirouettes by Mr. Mistoffelees, who does this not once but twice -- these are the moves that have to carry the long, famously plotless evening.

In this less-than-magical environment, the dances don't always look so inspired, and the tinny sound from the pit doesn't help. (There it is: sympathy for Andrew Lloyd Webber.) Of course, sheer boisterous excessiveness has been part of "Cats" since Day One, from the overdone crescendo of the lovely "Memory" (dutifully revved to clarion levels for 10 seconds by the otherwise appealing Angie Smith) to the spaceship finale, and even its more-than-nine-lives life span.

Like a true feline, though, it's indifferent -- now and forever -- to opinion.

Cats, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," by T.S. Eliot. Directed and choreographed for the tour by Richard Stafford. About 2 hours 30 minutes. Through March 18 at the Warner Theatre, 13th and E streets NW. Call 202-397-7328 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company