No one goes to see a play in a vacuum, so let me put the evening I attended Cats in context: It came at the end of a week spent alternately reading student papers (in my other life, I teach writing at CU) and conferencing with the authors of those papers. It's tiring, and by Friday night I was more than ready for an evening of mindless relaxation. I'd invited a good friend and her drolly clever thirteen-year-old son, Seth, along, so I knew the company would be good. Moreover, I had thoroughly enjoyed Boulder Dinner Theatre's last two offerings: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, its insipidity countered by clever direction and excellent performances, and Cabaret, which is more somber in tone than the average dinner-theater fare and was beautifully performed.
I'm not a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber, but I had a vague memory that Cats, which came early in the impresario's career, still retained a trace of liveliness and humor. I also knew that the cast had taken ballet training for a month with Peter Davison, of Boulder Ballet, and Barbara Demaree, the doyen of the art form in Boulder and the soul of elegance. So my expectations for the evening were high.
Let me say that the company did as good a job with Cats as I can imagine -- but it was still unsatisfying.
On the bright side, the dancing, choreographed by Stephen Bertles, who also directed, is seamless. The cast is lithe and graceful; they can do all kinds of physical things the rest of us can't. They slither like snakes. They leap high and land without a sound. They're wonderfully into character, batting at each other with kitty-cat paws, or hissing or rubbing a head lightly against a fellow actor's shoulder. I was less comfortable when they turned balletic. Most of us have the image of a perfect arabesque in our heads, and the dancing wasn't quite up to that level. Nonetheless, the actors create a moving frieze of varied and interesting cats, helped immensely by the costumes of Linda Morken, who individualized her designs so that the clothing was particular not only to the kind of cat the actor was impersonating, but to the physicality of the actor himself. Gizelle Ruzany, for instance, became a dear, fluffy, little white kitty, and Joanie Brosseau-Beyette couldn't have been brighter or cuter as Rumpleteazer.
As always at BDT, the voices are really fine, particularly those of Brosseau-Beyette, charming newcomer Amy Grass as Griddlebone and Alicia Dunfee, with her imposing stage presence and her strong contralto. I can never see too much of Shelly Cox-Robie, whether she's singing or acting. Here she gets "Memory," easily the show's best song, and she does it full justice. It's a nice idea to have Brosseau-Beyette sing "Memory" in a teeny little head-voice beforehand, as this makes Cox-Robie's vocals sound even more richly textured.
There are a few great numbers. You can't not like "Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer." Seth was delighted by Scott Beyette's Elvis-style swagger on "The Rum Tum Tugger," and "Gus the Theatre Cat" was brilliantly brought to life by A.K. Klimpke.
Let's not forget the T.S. Eliot factor. Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is the dour old poet's most playful work, full of wit and silliness and delicious turns of phrase.
All in all, a menu of pluses: good costumes, fine performances, an imaginative set by Melissa Schrank that made the most of the small space, solid sound provided by a large orchestra under the direction of Neal Dunfee, professionally slick direction. What could be the problem?
Simply this: There was a time when musicals -- at their best -- boasted heart-lifting melodies, interesting rhythms and clever lyrics. Then came composers who were interested in the social and political implications of the form, others who explored its darker possibilities or pushed its aesthetic limits. But then Andrew Lloyd Webber arrived like a soggy gray blanket, snuffing out any sparks of wit or originality and leaving in their place a huge, throbbing, manipulative, faintly ecclesiastical and unfocusedly ecstatic swamp of sentimentality. It's a swamp that snares these dancing kitties' feet, no matter how high they try to leap.
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