Whatever enthusiastic comments you may have heard -- and you must have heard something by now -- "Cats" will not let you down.
It is that rarity -- a genuine, popular musical that appeals to adults and children, not to mention the child in the adult and the adult in the child. It is playful, eye-popping, hearting-stopping entertainment on a grand scale.
And yet embedded in the panache, insinuating itself into the spectacle of so many leaping, twirling, preening felines, is a palpable awareness of the mystery of life and rebirth.
In 1984 "Cats" sold out a six-month engagement at the National Theatre, where it returned last night. On this occasion, the run is for 10 weeks and most of the tickets have already been lapped up. In time, "Les Mise'rables" will probably end up giving "Cats" a run for its money. But for now, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical about the night a tangle of cats got together to sing and dance and select one from its midst for reincarnation, is, arguably, the world's most popular show.
To pooh-pooh its appeal is, at this stage of the game, snobbery of the sort that maintains Niagara Falls is really merely so much water. Forget the cavils. Wonderment is what "Cats" deals in; wonderment is what it delivers. Having seen it five times now, I admit my pleasure is beginning to lessen. But I compensate by sneaking looks at spectators around me and watching their jaws drop. Their pleasure is contagious.
I'm not exactly breaking fresh ground by saying that "Cats" is based on a series of T.S. Eliot poems, "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," that it takes place in an oversized junk heap designed by John Napier and that the cast, more than two dozen strong, is stunningly costumed (by Napier) to resemble felines of every shape and stripe. They have gathered for the Jellicle Ball at the conclusion of which benevolent Old Deuteronomy (Calvin E. Remsberg) will extend the promise of another life -- a 10th? -- to the most deserving of his subjects.
In a series of beguiling numbers, we are introduced to the four-footed candidates -- officious Jennyanydots (Sally Ann Swarm), who whips a bunch of beetles into a crisp tap-dancing ensemble; swivel-hipped Rum Tum Tugger (Douglas Graham, a standout), who aspires to rock stardom and uses his tail for a microphone; Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Bill Brassea and Andrea Karas), a mischievous team of cat burglars; Gus (Frank Mastrone), the rheumy old theater cat, living off faded memories of his days as a matinee idol; and eternally alert Skimbleshanks (Eric Scott Kincaid, another standout), who by being everywhere at once manages to keep the British railway system running punctually.
There's Macavity (Fred Anderson), the nefarious criminal who's never at the scene of the crime and, indeed, at one point vanishes in a spectacular explosion of lights and clatter of noise. And Mistoffelees (Roger Kachel), the amazing conjuring cat, who descends to the stage on spider's thread and then proceeds to spread magic over a show already awash in it.
Hovering on the edges, ignored, if not excoriated, is Grizabella (Janene Lovullo), the glamor cat, long since fallen on hard times. To her goes the big second-act number, "Memory," and if it is largely fail-safe, Lovullo nonetheless taps its haunting power and sends the show right over the top.
It has been pointed out that "Cats" is not unlike "A Chorus Line." The characters, engaged in a competition to win the favor of a superior, are all putting themselves on the line. In "A Chorus Line," the prize is a berth in an upcoming Broadway show. In "Cats," it is salvation itself. T.S. Eliot is usually the least heralded of "Cats' " creators, and yet, in the end, it is his sensibility that makes the show more than just a Disneyesque romp in which humans delight us by playing animals.
For all its pyrotechnics, "Cats" does put its paw on our yearnings for transfiguration. A sense of the elemental mysteries infiltrates Lloyd Webber's score, just as it informs Trevor Nunn's wily direction. Cats, the evening implies, know something we don't know; in their enigmatic gaze lies the answer to the riddle of the universe. The dazzling finale, in which Grizabella ascends to heaven on an old tire, comes close to qualifying as an apotheosis.
Did I mention Joe Locarro, immensely personable as Munkustrap? Or Jessica Molaskey, a fluffy white diva trying gallantly to cling to her dignity even as she is getting knocked to the floor? Or sexy Nora Brennan, who, as Bombalurina, kicks so high you fear for the stars twinkling overhead?
Better you should see them all for yourself. "Cats" is not only everything you've been told; it's a lot more that can't be put into words. The elusiveness may be what's best of all.
Cats, based on "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" by T. S. Eliot. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Trevor Nunn; designed by John Napier; lighting by David Hersey; choreography by Gillian Lynne. With Frank Mastrone, Nora Brennan, Janene Lovullo, Jessica Molaskey, Sally Ann Swarm, Roger Kachel, Bill Brassea, Joe Locarro, Calvin E. Remsberg, Fred Anderson, Douglas Graham, Andrea Karas, Eric Scott Kincaid. At the National Theatre through Sept. 13.