By Oline H. Cogdill
My first encounter with Cats was during my first trip to London and the musical had only been open a few weeks. My friend and I knew very little about this Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production—only that it was based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and that it was, well, about cats.
But my friend and I always were willing to take chances on theater—and still are—and Cats immediately plunged us into a charming, vivid evening of acrobatic dancers, strong voices, catchy tunes and a delightful evening. The song Memory was still new and not overplayed, poignantly sung in that 1981 production by the incomparable British actress Elaine Paige.
During intermission, Old Deuteronomy and several members of the company stayed on stage, encouraging audience members, especially children, to come on stage.
You might say that there truly was “not a sound from the pavement.”
So often, our memories truly are all alone in the moonlight as we can never recreated those first impressions and, frankly, not every thing we held fond and dear ages well.
But that’s not the case with the Broadway Across America’s current tour of Cats, running through April 10 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale.
There is still a lot of life in these Cats as the production still manages to charm and, oddly, seem fresh as the various lithe, limber dancer fill the stage. Cats only requires its audiences to just enjoy the moment.
But the Cats that has landed at the Broward Center probably is the absolute best production of this musical. It doesn’t just seem fresh, it feels like a brand-new production. The dancing is crisp, the voices universally strong and the entire musical enchants again.
The plot is about as bare-bones as possible. The Jellicle Cats meet once a year to celebrate their “Jellicle Ball.” They are waiting their leader, Old Deuteronomy, to choose which one of the Jellicle Cats will journey to the Heaviside Layer to be ‘reborn’ into a new life!
That’s all you need to know about Cats’ story. And I still don’t know what a Jellicle cat is—sorry, I am a dog person.
During the evening, each cat becomes a unique character thanks to the actors who channel their feline powers—spritely Victoria (Hyla Mayrose Perillo); Devon McCleskey as steady Munkustrap; Jennyanydots (Michelle Carter), the Old Gumbie Cat who just sleeps and lounges. At least we have a definition of a Gumbie—“she sits and sits and sits and sits, and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat.” Credit John Anker Bow who delivers a poignant Gus, the aged theater cat who does not want to leave the stage and as Bustopher Jones, whose favorite activity is eating, the opposite of Jennyanydots.
Zach Bravo channels Mick Jagger as Rum Tum Tugger, the cat who is never satisfied, who oozes sex appeal and who is a rock star in the making.
Paul Giarratano conjures applause after applause as Mr. Mistoffelees, the magical cat.
And finally, there is Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, who left the Jellicles years before to explore the outside world and hasn’t had a good life. Now she wants to return. Taylor Harris nails the signature song Memory.
We’d like to mention all the cats as each one is a standout, but, well, there are lot of cats in this clowder.
Kudos to the Broward Center’s sound system and to the Cats Orchestra, led by music director/conductor Jonathan Gorst.
That London production ran for 21 years while the Broadway version, which opened in 1982, ran for 18 years, with a couple of revivals, prompting the sometimes snide comment “Cats, now and forever.” While it might have become fashionable to knock Cats, but there is no denying this became one popular show as it became the longest running musical in both London and New York City’s theater districts for several years. It’s been revived a few times in London and on Broadway as well as myriad international productions—30 countries, translated into 15 languages.
My friend and I saw a lot of theater that week, two shows a day, and yeah, most of those shows were more meaningful than Cats. But maybe because we were staying in London’s Bloomsbury area in the West End, we would often mention Cats and recite these lyrics “Up up up past the Russell Hotel” as we passed the hotel daily.
The Broward Center’s run of Cats is short—so “Let the memory live again.”
Cats runs through April 10 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale, as part of the Broadway Across America-Fort Lauderdale. Visit BrowardCenter.org or call (954) 462-0222; orders for groups of 10 or more call (954) 660-6307. Running time approximately two hours, 10 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Prices range from $35 to $115.
COVID Protocol at Broward Center: Masks are optional. Visit the Guest Policy at https://www.browardcenter.org/visit/guest-entry-policy for full details.