Forever has resumed on Broadway. The original production of Cats, which billboarded the slogan "Cats. Now and Forever," paused the forever part on September 10, 2000. Guess what! The pause is over. Forever is rolling on, at the Neil Simon Theatre. And if the producers don't mind a new slogan suggestion, they might try "Cats. Now and Better Than Ever."
I make the offer because, although I recall the earlier incarnation very well--I watched and listened to it in London and New York--I don't remember every minute. I'm convinced, however, that the revival, again directed by Trevor Nunn, is absolutely as entertaining as initially it was. It may only be my overworking imagination, but I also have the impression that new choreographer, Tony-winning Andy (Hamilton) Blankenbuehler, has been respectfully true to Gillian Lynne's seminal work while beautifully enhancing it.
As most longtime fans know, the blockbuster tuner was inspired by T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. The spotlighted occasion in the musical the poet inspired is called the Jellicle Ball. It's attended by the Jellicle tribe--the word" Jellicle" is Eliot's invention--and the ball is an annual get-together (a cat-together?), during which presiding cat Old Deuteronomy decides which one of those present will be accorded a new beginning.
What transpires is really a revue during which the felines compete for a coveted prize that might be described as a tenth life. These many years later, Cats does resemble the cat version of American Idol or America's Got Talent. You might say Cats Got Talent.
N.B.: Whereas set and costume designer John Napier placed the first offering in the round, the return is housed within a proscenium. As a result, it's more presentational, lending the new Cats a television reality series heft. Napier's revised set is also smaller and has a more concentrated look. But it still is more like the city dump than a rose garden. Nevertheless, it comes complete with abundant surprises. The beloved tire and abandoned auto are present, and just wait for a train magically to materialize.
In addition, Napier has spun variations on his striking costumes. In the instance of a cropped jacket, he's been able to include radiant marvels perhaps not previously available to him. High praise, too, for designer Natasha Katz (yup, Katz), whose deft lighting changes must number in the thousands.
There are so many astonishing aspects to Cats that it's a challenge to decide where to continue the praise. The cast isn't a bad place. To begin, the look is eye-popping. The moving bodies are mesmerizing, and Blankenbuehler makes certain the movement rarely slows. (How the dancers spend their downtime has to be prone and gasping for air.)
Just about everyone in the troupe is required to do more than keep up--New York City Ballet loan Georgina Pazcoguin, wearing white, is first among equals--but a preponderance are given scene-stealing opportunities and take full advantage. Quentin Earl Darrington, Tyler Hanes, Christine Cornish Smith, Eloise Kropp, Jess LeProtto, Shonica Gooden, Ricky Ubeda, Giuseppe Bausilio, Christopher Gurr--they're all lithe, funny, somber, brimming with sex appeal, thrillingly feral. And that's not to name them all or to applaud their facility at constantly singing and dancing--even while executing cartwheels and flips.
Perhaps the best-known Cats heaven-bound wannabe is the once stunning, now broken Grizabella, created in London by Elaine Paige and in New York City by Betty Buckley (with Laurie Beechman among the replacements). Leona Lewis, famous as an X Factor winner and Simon Cowell protégé, is following in those prestigious paws. Singing "Memory," the tuner's jaw-dropping hit (Nunn based it on a recovered Eliot scrap), she's strong vocally and at the acting. In her eyes and bent walk is everything Grizabella knows about the ravages of life.
The depth and breadth of Lord Lloyd Webber's music isn't limited to this standard, the closing uplift of which is only equaled over the decades by a handful of show ballads. The Jellicle cats come in all shapes and sizes, and the composer has a catchy, lilting, sonorous melody for all. Lloyd Webber has been dismissed over the decades for cribbing from predecessors (Giacomo Puccini prominent among them). But if the definition of genius is "knowing what to steal", he's a bona fide genius. Conductor Kristen Blodgette sees to the score's lofty qualities.
With the Cats reopening, Lloyd Webber once again has three musicals running on the Great White Way. Phantom of the Opera is about to go into its 20th year at the Majestic. School of Rock looks to be a long run at the Winter Garden. Indeed, Cats, which occupied the Winter Garden for that earlier forever, likely has to be at the Neil Simon because Lloyd Webber has dispossessed himself.
So what is there to say about the universal Cats appeal? Facebook alone, with its overwhelming cats and kittens videos, attests to the love for the cunning animals, but there's more to the intent. Whether Eliot was a dyed-in-the-fur cat lover is a fact difficult to pin down, but if so, responding to that urge certainly wasn't/isn't the overarching Practical Cats point. Eliot is writing about humankind. The cantankerous scribe is positing that the planet isn't a waste land, after all.
It's undoubtedly coincidence that Cats arrives on cats' feet just after the national political conventions have concluded. Patrons seeing it this week and in the weeks to come may find themselves reminded of those congregations. Truth to tell, they're more likely to see the Democrat Convention echoed rather than the Republican Convention.
The diversity of the former outshines the divisiveness of the latter--the many unison dance routines being a visual metaphor for cohesion and promise. And it may be that when Grizabella, a woman, is selected to rise to new heights, more than a few spectators will flash on the Democrat's 2016 nominee ascending to her next vaunted level.
Yup, they got that slogan right. Once again, it's Cats now and probably forever. The only thing missing is the old logo: a cat dancing in a cat's eye. Maybe the producers will shortly revive that, too.