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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, April 15, 2005

Offbeat 'Cats' always lands audience on its feet

By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Advertiser Drama Critic

"Cats" is a musical that probably never should have been a commercial success.

"Cats" takes place in a junkyard where the furry ones gather for the annual Ball. The touring production continues through Sunday.

Advertiser library photo • 2005

  • 8 tonight; 2 and 8 p.m. tomorrow; 2 and 7 p.m.
  • Sunday
  • Blaisdell Concert Hall
  • $35-$75
  • (877) 750-4400
It's based on "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" by T.S. Eliot, a difficult poet most probably remembered by anyone who slogged through "The Wasteland" in an English literature class.

But Andrew Lloyd Webber gave it a musical score that is in equal parts pretentious, hummable and important. And the novelty of watching singing dancers dressed up and pretending to be felines has not dimmed with age.

The show premiered in London in 1981, opened on Broadway the next year, and became the longest-running musical in history — in both locations.

"Cats" is not a children's show, but children love it. Its lyrics are complicated and not always immediately understandable, and only one song — "Memory" — has become a real hit, recorded in more than 150 versions. There is no spoken dialogue and almost no plot.

The collection of musical numbers is set in a junkyard where a tribe of Jellicle cats has come out for its annual Ball. Just before dawn, the leader, Old Deuteronomy, will choose a cat to be reborn to a new life in the Heaviside Layer. Until then, the cats entertain each other with musical numbers featuring cat heroes old and new.

The touring production playing at the Blaisdell Concert Hall is appropriately an ensemble production with no name stars, but it's filled with excellent young singers and dancers who are building their resumes in regional theaters and national tours.

The big song goes to Natalie Attino as Grizabella, the aging glamour cat. Looking like ambulatory road kill in tattered furs and sequins, Grizabella sings through a bad wig and running eye shadow to give "Memory" plenty of chilling drama and plaintive emotion. When she ascends to her heavenly reward on a flying saucer amid smoke and laser lights, the show reaches its appropriately big finale.

Jason Simon brings operatic Old Testament presence and kindly gravity to the role of Deuteronomy, a Moses figure leading the cats with his mood-leveling presence.

Opera also gets spoofed in a long melodramatic set piece featuring Steven Rich as Growltiger and Kym Chambers and Griddlebone. The two romp through an abduction aboard a pirate ship, culminating in a swashbuckling battle with a gang of Siamese cat-fighters.

While the production features ballet, soft-shoe, jazz dance and tap, the longest applause for a dance number goes to Justin Wingenroth as the magical Mr. Mistoffelees. Dressed in an all-black costume embroidered with hundreds of tiny mirrors, he does a ballet solo that is all showy moves and controlled athleticism.

Other audience favorites are Gregory Haney and Lisa Schale as Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, a physically matched pair who perform a semi-vaudeville routine culminating in a double cartwheel that brings on the applause.

The show is mounted on a relatively shallow set on the Blaisdell stage, but has enough lighting gimmicks to impress and musical accompaniment that booms without burying the singers.

If you've already seen "Cats," this production won't disappoint. If you are new to the show, spend a little advance time with Mr. Eliot's original. It's OK to skip "The Wasteland."