Pussyfooting around a product of its time

Cats (Lunchbox Theatrical Productions)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

January 29 – February 14

“Cats” is a classic of musical theatre, one of the most successful musicals of all time, just announced for a Broadway revival fuelled by the success of its recent limited-run productions in London. With its extravagant imagination and fusion of music, dance and design, it is a megamusical that is very much a product of its time, ready to be revelled in perhaps only by nostalgic audiences.

Unfortunately, the Australian production now playing in Brisbane is based on the recent revival at London’s Palladium Theatre, updated in several ways by the original creative team, including composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, resulting in changes that serve only to emphasise how dated the work is.

Prologued pauses tease the audience in the show’s Prologue ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’ in contrast to later reprises, serving their purpose with audience members heard to be humming or singing the ‘80s arrangements in recall at intermission. And although playful rocker Rum Tum Tugger’s number has morphed into a rap, it is more ‘90s than 2016. Its insert at the expense of one of the original show’s better numbers is not only disappointing, but jarring in its difficult-to-discern lyrics.

Based as it is on TS Elliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”, the musical has only the loosest of narratives, perhaps best described as a variety show of diverse numbers from an array of cats at an annual gathering to make ‘the Jellicle choice’ and decide which cat will ascend to the Heavenside Layer and come back to a new life. It’s a format that allows not only for individual audience favourites, but a range of genres as diverse as the pussy personalities.

cats.jpg

This is a musical driven by dance, be it contemporary, classic ballet or jazz in form. Indeed, it is a demanding and high-energy, physical show, which makes impressive use of the Lyric Theatre’s relatively small stage space to showcase the acrobatics of mischievous prankster petty burglars Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Brent Osborne and Dominique Hamilton) and an ensemble tap number led by the mothering tabby Jennyanydots (Holly Meegan), the old Gumbie Cat, who might sit and sit all day, but at night teaches the mice and cockroaches how to play.

This variety is more striking in Act Two, which includes an impressive ballet solo from Christopher Favaloro as the original conjuring cat, the Magical Mr Mistoffelees and an operatic aria from Ten Tenors alumnus Josh Piterman as Gus the Theatre Cat reminisces about his once celebrated role of pirate Growltiger serenading his love interest Griddlebone.

The Mr Mistoffelees number also serves to showcase some of the show’s best lighting, especially compared to the earlier awash of aqua and violet hues that, although atmospheric, make it difficult to appreciate the oversized junkyard set of bottles and boxes that is left shrouded in the shadows. Still, when Shimbleshanks (Ross Hannaford) sings of his life as a railway cat and a whole steam train engine is assembled out of the junkyard items, it is an impressive transformation. While costumes, work to support each kitty in their distinct demeanour, they appear like museum relics of ‘80s lycra and legwarmers so that when assembled in line you might almost be ready for a burst of ‘Thriller’ dance moves.

Despite his revamped Rum Tum Tugger number, Daniel Assetta showcases some superb vocals in ‘‘Mr Mistoffelees’ and, along with narrator-of-sorts Munkustrap (Matt McFarlane) in ‘Old Deuteronomy’, as tribute to the wise and benevolent leader of the Jellicle tribe. Show headliner, Delta Goodrem does an excellent job in her musical theatre debut as the fragile glamour cat Grizabella, rejected by her community. From the moment she slinks on stage late in Act One, she commands the space, implausible as may be as the shabby, old, has-been outcast. Her delivery of the Act Two showstopper ‘Memory’ is soulfully superb from its sorrow to its big, belting finish. Although she may be Australian pop royalty, however, Marina Prior she is not.

In many ways, this is a “Cats” that has changed, but also not so. And there is a problem with each of these statements. With overheard opening night comments including ‘I still don’t get it’ and ‘I’m not sure how I feel’, it is clear that the show is as divisive as ever. If you love musical theatre, its experience will probably remind you of why, just as if musical theatre is not really your thing, it will serve as confirmation of the reasons. Although audiences as no doubt more jaded than in its early years, however, there is still wonder in the eyes of many youngsters as the clowder of cats first enter to crawl amongst and over audience members creating at least one moment of nostalgia in memory of the first time experience for those whose “Cats” initiation may now be decades passed. Either way, the production is probably worth a look. If only to come to your own conclusion about its 2016 worth.

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