[image-1]I saw Cats Tuesday night at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. It was a great performance of a not-so-great Broadway musical. The review in Wednesday’s P&C noted that it never caught fire. That’s true. But I think that’s because of the ingredients, not the cooks.
As the reviewer noted, Cats is a spectacle. By their nature, spectacles are impersonal, distant and commanding of your attention. They are conspicuous, even hostile. They keep you at arm’s length. They don’t let you in, don’t let you see anything they don’t want you to see. Like a fireworks display that gets repetitive after so many kabooms, Cats needs to keep laying on the razzle-dazzle, the flashy twirling things, the unexpected pops to stay entertaining.
And by and large Tuesday night’s performance did just that. The lighting was fine and the scenery was fine, too. (Personally, I got a kick out of the big shoe that fell onto the stage, like a cranky apartment dweller trying to get those damn caterwauling cats to shut up). Yes, the scenery was static, but it was quality.
The technology that went into making that extra-terrestrial-like platform that lifts Old Deuteronomy up into the heavens was fantastic: The way smoke came streaming out from underneath the platform, masking its mechanics, gave it a spine-tingling look of floating in the air. It was pure sensation, pure theater. No matter what your sensibility, you got a thrill.
The cast was especially good during the tableaux: That is, those scenes in which each kind of cat is introduced and a story is told about that cat, all accompanied by some kind of ensemble dancing, theatrical play, all set to an allegory. These for me are the heart of the musical. Cats would be nothing if not for these to hold the whole thing together, to give it reason for existing, if threading these scenes together can be said to be reason enough.
The tableaux were well-danced, well-acted, funny and cute. The cast had great timing and pacing and all those things that competent triple-threats (dancer, singer, actor all in one person) do. These people were pros. You didn’t need any special knowledge to see that.
Back to not catching fire: There are two dead spots in Cats from my perspective. One is the extended dance sequence between the end of the last tableau (the terrific duo of Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer celebrating their own mischievousness) and the end of the first act. The other dead spot is at the end of the last tableau (the peak point of spectacle when Mr. Mistofflelees dances) and the end of the second act.
In these dead spots is where all the quote-unquote story takes place and the reason I say quote-unquote is that there’s hardly a story at all in Cats, and it becomes really tedious to wait for these story conventions to take their course. It’s especially tedious to see Grizabella (the dethroned glamour cat who eventually gets her final reward) looking so hurt and pathetic and old and in need of the sweet milk of human kindness. The whole of Cats up to that point has been spectacle, impersonal, cold, and relentless. The characters don’t give us any real reason to care for them (which is OK), and now one of them looks to us for, what, empathy? Nope.
A reason for the tedium is the lack of a strong story with developed characters put in settings in which we can understand their motivations, desires and fears. Without that we can’t really connect with them and so it’s easy to get bored. Remember the fireworks analogy. Your eyes glaze over unless there’s something even more spectacular to dazzle them.
That and Andrew Lloyd Webber makes you listen to his music here. I like Webber’s music (Jesus Christ Superstar for instance) but Cats‘ doesn’t do much for me. Waiting for the music to run its course (like the threadbare story conventions) tended to try my patience. Music dominates Cats; dance and story conform to its demands, not the other way around.
Which brings us to Stephen Sondheim (surprise!). Before Sondheim, story was king. Music was secondary. After Sondheim, Broadway composers made the effort to integrate song and story. By the time Webber came along, story had been relegated to the backseat. And in Cats, the story is not just secondary; it’s cast aside, like old litter (sorry). Hence, not catching fire.
I hope someday Cats will be looked at for it is: a moment in Broadway history. It’s a lot of fun, but doesn’t bear repeated viewings. Even the Broadway lover I was sitting next to, after saying she just loved the music, the costumes and more, admitted falling asleep during a dead spot.
Cats runs again tonight at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center at 7:30 p.m.