Cats (Harvest Rain Theatre Company)
Brisbane Convention Centre
July 4 – 6
When Harvest Rain Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Tim O’Connor first floated the idea of a “Cats” arena spectacular of 800 performers, people told him he was mad. Mounting a production of such an enduring musical was always going to be a challenge; the Andrew Lloyd Webber show ran for a record-breaking 21 years following its 1981 debut in London’s West End, as well as 18 years on Broadway (making it the second longest running show there, behind Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera”). But often it’s the craziest ideas that turn out to be the best.
From the moment the lights dim and hundreds of ensemble cats (young performers from across South East Queensland) swarm like mice amid the crowd, “Cats” does not disappoint. It is a visually spectacular, upbeat opening number as the practical, dramatical and pragmatical cats move to fill stage space under the Jellicle moon’s magnificence, shining bright as backdrop.
The junkyard dwelling cats have been awaiting the night of the Jellicle Ball, when their patriarch, Old Deuteronomy (Patrick Oxley), makes the ‘Jellicle Choice’ of one cat to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, where they will be reborn into a new life. Following its source material, the whimsical verse of T.S. Eliot’s ”Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”, the show introduces the collection’s charming characters as individuals, whose stories, told in dance and song, share reflective regret and joyous humour.
What gives “Cats” its point of difference is also perhaps its downfall as in terms of plot, its narrative is tenuous at best, with little dramatic arc, especially when compared with other Lloyd Webber works. However, what it lacks in spoken dialogue and story, it makes up for in performance, drawing on all elements of musical theatre to create a stunning show. From soulful ballads to rousing rock numbers, accompanied by agile dance routines, the show delivers. Credit must go to the Director and Choreographer Callum Mansfield and his team for their vision. This is a show about movement and from traditional tap to Scottish jig, there is a something for everyone in its execution. In each routine, the cast captures the lithe and nimble natures of their feline selves. And the en masse numbers, such as ‘Shimblshanks: The Railway Cat’ are quite spectacular. What also stops the show becoming just a monotony of various vignettes, is the music. From vibrant burlesque to smoky and soulful, there is a vairety of musical numbers, delivered by a range of able voices, accompanied by resonating orchestrations, led by conductor Maitlohn Drew.
The musical highlight is, of course, when bedraggled once-glamorous Grizabella (Marina Prior) delivers the iconic and achingly beautiful ‘Memory’. All despair and yearning as she smiles at the old days when she remembers being beautiful, she pleas to let the memory live again. And as Grisballe’s emotional outlet, it is a show-stopping, goosebumpy number. Indeed, the suite of character studies is heartily sung and professionally performed. Oxley’s Old Deuteronomy anchors the production with his kind demeanour, and Callan Warner and Hannah Crowther are acrobatic and mischievous as the notorious fun-loving, frolicking team of prankster cat burglars Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. A standout, however, is Ethan Jones as Rum Tum Tugger, who not only delivers an impressive rendition of magical ‘Mr Mistoffelees’, the original conjuring cat, but captures the curious beast Rum Tum Tugger and his obliging ways, in his signature swaggery song.
With mottled midnight tones, Jason Glenwright’s lighting design compliments the performative nature of the musical, rather than overshadowing the onstage action of the rotating stage, however, the addition of a video screen to allow those towards the back of the arena to appreciate the individual lead performances would have enhanced the experience.
Despite its place as one of the most beloved and successful musicals of all time, “Cats” has always divided audiences, with its critics often condemning it as a series of musical clichés. Yes, it is escapist entertainment as only Andrew Lloyd Webber can provide, but as such, it is filled with some magical moggie memories. As someone who has always had a nostalgic connection to the show as the first musical I saw in London’s West End, it is lovely to meander with Harvest Rain in the memory of what Jellicles can and Jellicles do.