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Theatre Review (LA): Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber and T. S. Eliot at the Carpenter Center

I have seen Cats several times (five in fact) since it opened on Broadway in May of 1982. Musical Theatre West has produced a production of this musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by T. S. Eliot and it’s the “cat’s meow.” Okay, I concede the bad pun, but this often maligned musical is getting the best production I have seen of Cats since I first saw it on Broadway. People love to say they hate Cats but having seen it a number of times I have to admit I left the theatre humming “Jellico Cats.”

There are several reasons why people tend to make fun of Cats. First, the source of the musical is T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Eliot is not the easiest poet to understand, but he wrote this book for his godchildren under the assumed name of “Old Possum.” Cats, the musical, has become a world-wide phenomenon that held the record for the longest-running musical on Broadway until it was surpassed by another Lloyd Webber musical, Phantom of the Opera. This could be another reason to hold Cats in contempt because people just couldn’t understand the appeal.

Wee people love cats and after all, though at times a bit obscure, the poems were written for children. Eliot capitalized on the fact that people tend to humanize their pets in his series of poems, naming different kinds of cats: a theatre cat, a ship cat, a randy cat, a fierce cat, several cuddly cats, and old cat, and an old “Glamour Cat,” who goes to cat heaven to be reborn.

What is very special about this production in Long Beach is the care taken with the music and choreography. Musical Director Dennis Castellano has really captured the nuances in the music and has directed the singing beautifully, especially in the ensemble singing, I have never heard those choral passages so well done. The same could be said of the choreography of Billy Johnstone and Dana Solimando. Both of these gentlemen have a history with the show on the road and on Broadway. When the touring cast played at the Pantages awhile back, the dancing was a bit sloppy and certainly not danced in sync. In Long Beach, Johnstone and Solimando, who also co-directed the show, have made sure that the dancers dance together and the effect is magical.

The cast is excellent, led by Clint Bowers as old Deuteronomy (powerful voice), Joseph Corella as Mr. Mestoffolees (what a good dancer), Danny Gurwin as Rum Tum Tugger (Elvis lives!), and Kelli Provost as a particularly moving Grizabella. Provost’s rendition of “Memory” was powerful. Cats plays at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach until Feb 27th.

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