HARTFORD, Conn. – When I was crying as a baby, my dad used to take me on a car ride and sing me “Memory” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats to calm me down. So my mom tells me. While I have no recollection of those precious father-daughter moments, that song is without a doubt the most prominent memory I have of the Jellicle cats from the Broadway mewsical revival tour, pawsing to play at The Bushnell in Hartford.
On Tuesday, Keri René Fuller’s reprise of “Memory” toward the end of Act 2 as Grizabella – a sad and lonely older grey cat – is a powerful, heart-wrenching showstopper with the operatic fervor of monumental, tragic songs like “I Dreamed a Dream” or “On My Own” in Les Mis. She pours every bit of energy and soul into that song before beautifully ascending to the Heavens as she’s lifted on a rising platform and flown using rigging technology off upstage left.
The lyrics to “Memory” and many other songs in Cats are based on T.S. Eliot’s poetry, the pillar of this musical. Much like poems have a mystique, focusing on imagery and metaphor without disclosing the full story, Cats bewilders. It’s hard to follow what’s going on most of the time. If there was a plot, I couldn’t pinpoint it until I read about it after. So, if you like a show with a strong storyline, this musical won’t be for you. While the cats serve as our narrators, describing different cats in their world, they aren’t there to guide us through a structured story. The scenes flow into each other, overlapping, but are fragmented without much context.
You get the sense of a street cat community, but what exactly are the “Jellicle cats” highlighted in the spooky, discordant, lively opening number by the same name? Sure you can Google it and find that Eliot mentions that type of cat in his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. “The Naming of Cats” directly quotes his poem by the same title, establishing many of the fun character names like Bombalurina and Jellylorum. But while our cat hosts jest about anyone not knowing what a Jellicle cat is, the show doesn’t really fully explain the derivation of the term.
Story aside, Cats is visual poetry and a delight to watch. It really has more of a cabaret style to it, a cat-baret if you will. Most of the cats introduced have their own scenes as though they are individual acts in a circus lineup or a night club. Various genres of dance are featured, from ballet and tap to jazz and contemporary.
The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne, truly is the hallmark of this musical. Every movement, even the small, isolated motion of certain muscles, was so precise and calculated. The orchestra, conducted by Eric Kang, matches that precision rhythmically. The dancing was invigorating and elegant as the performers purrfectly executed catlike reflexes with dynamicity, flexibility, and playfulness.
Caitlin Bond took us to the ballet fused with Cirque de Soleil as Victoria, a graceful, angelic white cat featured at the Jellicle Ball. Her most mesmerizing move was when she balanced on one foot and slowly lifted her other leg until it extended in a perfect vertical line over her head. Not to mention she did a split on the floor.
Tion Gaston also dazzled us as a sheer sorcerer of dance in his role as the Magical Mister Mistoffelees. The song by that name was another beautiful one that stuck with you.
As did “Rum Tum Tugger.” McGee Maddox is a rock star as the curious cat who goes by that name, winning the audience over with his charisma and swagger. He brings a rock and roll element to the show, putting a more relatable and current stamp on it.
Tyler John Logan brought even more edge to the production as Macavity, the wild, troublemaking cat who can never be found after thecatastrophes he conjures. He looked like Marilyn Manson meets David Bowie from Labyrinth.
Brandon Michael Nase had a booming operatic voice as patriarch Old Deuteronomy, only matched by Fuller’s Grizabella.
Timothy Gulan was the jester of the court of cats as Peter/Bustopher Jones/Asparagus, giving us a lot of laughs with his dramatic confidence as an actor playing a cat-actor.
The big chorus numbers, such as the opener, were strongest when all of the cats sang together as opposed to individually due to pitch issues in some of the solos.
The cats charmed the audience with their interactivity going up and down the aisles. It was interesting hearing the group as a whole and then zeroing in on the words and personality of the actor right next to you. It’s rare to get close to the action.
Even better, that allowed us to get a closer look at the stunning feline makeup and fabulous, glamorous costumes by John Napier. There were form-fitting tiger-striped body suits, Victoria’s shiny, white spandex outfit, cat ear head pieces, tails, furry tuxedos, and plush get-ups. Some coats even had some sparkle, like Mistoffelees. Rum Tum Tugger’s black pleather leggings, silver chain belt, furry vest, and spiky collar really enhanced his punk rocker vibe.
The glowing yellow cat eyes in the darkness at the beginning of the show made for a haunting opening.
The moonlit set was majestic, twinkling with lights strung above stage.
As snow coated The Bushnell and sparkled in the trees, we all left very much not alone in the moonlight, having shared a paw-some, purr-ty memory that for some could live fur-ever.
Now, someone has to write a rival musical called Dogs!
Cats, directed by Trevor Nunn, runs through Sunday, Feb. 3. At The Bushnell at 166 Capital Ave. in Hartford. More information on tickets and the production is available at bushnell.org.