The real star of Cats, the latest entry out of San Diego Musical Theatre (SDMT), isn’t Old Deuteronomy or Grizabella or Rum Tum Tugger or Rumpleteazer or Bombalurina or Munkustrap or Mr. Mistoffelees or any of the outlandishly monikered denizens you may have come to know. It’s T. S. Eliot, the iconic poet who wrote the stuff on which the play is based. Cats are so ingrained in the modern public mind that they run the risk of obscurity as works of art—but Eliot (along with the ancient Egyptians, who worshipped the animals, and Pope Innocent VIII, who ordered them killed amid their obvious propensity for evil) kept their spirit alive with Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a clutch of rhymes he wrote in the 1930s for his godkids.
There’s something untoward about watching a musical of Eliot’s poems versus reading them—theater is definitely not the default home for everything from another medium, and Cats is a prime example. Having said that, I concede that spectacle-hungry audiences, their curiosity buoyed by the piece’s seven Tonys from 1983 and its status as the second longest-running Broadway musical among shows now closed, will enjoy this entry with little reservation. It’s feisty, tight and well-teched behind James Vasquez’s eloquent direction—while this doesn’t necessarily say that much, I’d venture that the installment is about as good as Cats can get.
Eliot’s full-throated verses about cat sociology have morphed into ballads and diatribes shared by a nocturnal clan of Jellicle cats (so named by Eliot’s little niece, whom he heard mispronounce “dear little cat”). The animals have convened in a London junkyard for the annual Jellicle Ball, where they’ll decide which of them will ascend to another of their nine lives. The likely candidates are Grizabella (Debbie Prutsman) and Old Deuteronomy (Kürt Norby), since they’re the oldest and have the most persuasive stories about their life experience. Along the way, all the cats reveal more and more about themselves and trot out their adventures as stowaways and strays.
Not much of a plot, certainly, especially in light of its running order. Andrew Lloyd Webber (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar) has crafted some wonderful music, heavy on the midrange and very accessible to the singers—but he’s written it around spotty exposition about the ball, heralding the event (wonderfully danced by Arielle Meads’ Victoria) well into the cats’ introductions. Trevor Nunn’s and Richard Stilgoe’s additional lyrics evoke the felines’ clannish behavior, but their edginess sometimes trips over the whimsical tone Eliot is trying to set.
That said, it’s hard enough keeping nonmusical actors on the same page; add 16 musicians and a cast of more than 22, and the chances for mishaps multiply. Vasquez and choreographer Janet Renslow collaborate remarkably well here, coordinating the visual and musical spectacles so that one supports the other without assuming a life of its own. And just as cats are maddeningly complex beings, so too is the staging at its most difficult, with few distractions marring the animals’ unending minces and skulks.
There’s a big understory here about the cats’ interrelationships, replete with family jealousies, regrets and hopes. While the spectacle interferes with its telling, the characters’ chemistries reveal a lot of it. Mungojerrie (Steven Rada) and Runpleteazer (Joy Newbegin) are the ideal mischief-makers, their petty crimes fueling Rumpleteazer’s absolutely magnificent laugh. Grizabella and Old Deuteronomy are terrific because they wear their ages so very poorly, another of this show’s many deferences to the animals’ human affectations. As Mr. Mistoffelees, Dylan Hoffinger is his usual stand-out self—his lithe movements and “I double-dare ya” attitude scream the character’s worldliness. Hoffinger is a future star and already a San Diego favorite (the bios don’t give his age, but I think he’s only like 18).
Arguably, “Memory” is Cats‘ anchor hit, and Prutsman nuances it with a combination of exhilaration and grief. Lesser-known tunes like “The Naming of Cats” and “Jellicle Ball” (performed by the company) benefit from Don Le Master’s music direction—midrange is a big item with Webber, and Le Master responds accordingly. Matthew Novotny’s lights and Janet Pitcher’s costume coordination contribute to the seamless tech effort. The set is readable in its clutter (the program doesn’t list a designer), but parts of it look almost fused, as though matted together by human hands.
John Steinbeck once called his stage adaptation of his novel Of Mice and Men a “failure,” and Orson Welles reportedly thought Citizen Kane would have made a better book than a movie. So it is with Cats, whose prototype was better off as a book to fuel the imaginations of its young audience in a different way. But new times demand new approaches, like spectacle, in return for our suspension of disbelief. With Cats, SDMT shows its awareness of the modern environment, with quite a satisfying staging to boot.
This review is based on the matinee performance of March 23. Cats runs through April 6 at the Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave. in North Park. $16-$56. 858-560-5740, sdmt.org.