Cats comes back to life at Boulder's Dinner Theatre

How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!/With his features of clerical cut/And his brow so grim/And his mouth so prim/And his conversation so nicely/Restricted to What Precisely/And If and Perhaps and But./How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!/With a bobtail cur/In a coat of fur/And a porpentine cat/And a wopsical hat/How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!/ (Whether his mouth be open or shut).

Not many people think of humor when they think of T.S. Eliot, though he did pen the self-parody above in response to Edward Lear's nonsense poem about himself ("How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!/Who has written such volumes of stuff!"). But his Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which introduces a menagerie of fascinating, feral, forbidding and/or frivolous felines, is full of humor, wordplay and — a term not usually associated with Eliot — charm. The rhythms lend themselves so naturally to song that you can see why Andrew Lloyd Webber was inspired to create Cats, a musical of the book, which premiered at the beginning of the '80s, and also how the spare sprightliness of Eliot's language forestalled some of the florid sentimentality that later became synonymous with the producer-composer's name.

There's not much of a plot to Cats. You meet the Jellicles, with their cheerful faces and bright black eyes, who dance "under the light of the Jellicle moon"; the Ming-vase-smashing cat burglars, Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer; fat, elegant, gentleman's-club-haunting Bustopher Jones; and contrary-minded Rum Tum Tugger. You also get insight into the naming of cats (turns out that every cat needs three names), and also how to address a cat: "Before a Cat will condescend/To treat you as a trusted friend,/Some little token of esteem/Is needed like a dish of cream." The show's emotional core resides with battered street cat Grizabella, once a beauty, now doddering and shunned by the others. When we're told at the beginning by wise Old Deuteronomy that tonight one of the cats will be chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer — whatever that is — there's not a lot of suspense about who it will be.

Joanie Brosseau and Stephen Bertles in Cats.
Joanie Brosseau and Stephen Bertles in Cats.

This is Boulder's Dinner Theatre's second go at Cats, and though it's very like the 2004 production, it's been strengthened in a lot of small ways that make a very big difference. We still get Wayne Kennedy as Old Deuteronomy and Shelly Cox-Robie, with her rich, sweet voice, as Grizabella (and, yes, just as before, her rendition of "Memories" made me tear up a little). Tomcat Rum Tum Tugger once again gets the Elvis treatment from Scott Beyette, who seems even more lithe and light-footed this time. And Stephen Bertles is still responsible for the fluid choreography. But there are telling cast shifts and additions. Gus: The Theatre Cat was funny last time and he still is, but Brian Norber also conveys something a touch deeper, an underlying sadness, a sense of time's inevitable passing and a rich theatrical history lost. Tracy Warren — first seen at BDT last year in Hello, Dolly — is a find as Jellylorum and Griddlebone, a charmer with a warm personality and gorgeous voice. Perhaps most important, the cast features a few notable new dance talents: lithe Rae Klapperich, who plays adorable white kitty Victoria; dance major Jacob Taylor, whose smoothness, technique and nice lines add to magician Mistoffelees's mysterious appeal; and Michael Richman, who has performed with Hannah Kahn, Third Law and Gabe Masson Dance and contributes some dramatic turns and huge leaps as wicked Macavity.

The lyrics are delicious, the music appealing, and there's always something to catch and hold your attention as you confront a moving frieze of kitties cavorting, hissing, twitching, cleaning their own and each others' faces. I tend to think of Cats as an old warhorse, but here the energy and enthusiasm are so high and the skill level so evident that it made me remember the excitement that greeted the show when it first appeared, how risky and brilliant we all thought it was to set Eliot to music, eschewing obvious story and filling a stage with nothing but a crazily costumed cavalcade of singing and dancing cats. Somehow the folks at BDT have managed to forget the endless revivals and all the cheesy YouTube renditions of the songs, and approached their project with such energy and enthusiasm that they've made it new again.

 
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