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“Let the memory live again” say the promotions for Cats, which has just returned to Broadway after a 16 year absence. The much loved, much lambasted Andrew Lloyd Webber musical set records with its original run—from 1982 until 2000, and was the ultimate Broadway experience for two decades of visitors. Can the revival live up to the original?
The Knickerbocker attended a preview showing the week before Opening Night to find out just how these Jellicle cats compared with their forebears. Here’s why we’re purring about Cats on Broadway.
Hamilton is a mind-numbing race. The Color Purple is an emotional rollercoaster. Waitress is about an unwanted pregnancy from an unhappy marriage, Cats on the other hand, is about dancing British felines.
First-time viewers might think too hard trying to find a real plot with significance. There isn’t any. The musical is about one night in a London alleyway, where a clan of cats (“Jellicle” Cats) holds a ball and one of them is selected to be reincarnated. Based on T.S. Elliott’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a collection of poems he sent to his godchildren, the whimsical musical has no obvious takeaways. It’s pure theatrical entertainment, and it’s genius.
The British composer has ruled Broadway for decades, with hits like Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and School of Rock. With both School of Rock and Phantom still running, he’s now the only composer to have three shows playing at once on Broadway.
Andrew Lloyd Webber has a knack for pairing beautiful melodies with bombastic orchestration, which often dips into rock. Nearly every song in Cats is memorable, thanks to repeated melodic lines and lyrics. The Knickerbocker team has been humming “Memory,” “Mr. Mistoffelees,” and “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat” nonstop since the show.
London-born Leona Lewis makes her Broadway debut as Grizabella, the former glamor cat who’s seen better days. It’s one of Broadway’s great tragic characters, and the only cat from Cats who gives pause for thought. Lewis, who rose to fame with the song “Bleeding Love,” first saw the musical at age nine. She proves her onstage talents singing the iconic song “Memory.”
New choreography from Andy Blankenbuehler, fresh off a Tony win for Hamilton, brings more staccatoed, guttural movement to what Gillian Lynne’s original dances. But don’t panic, it’s decidedly not “contemporary, like 2016 Cats,” assures Blankenbuehler in a Playbill interview. “It’s still…timeless Cats.”
That means a lot of acrobatics. Slender, unitard-clad dancers flounce nimbly around the theater, perform flips, splits and double windmills almost nonstop throughout the show.
Since 2000, cats—the animal—have taken the internet by storm. The source of countless memes and viral YouTube videos, they’re truly ubiquitous. Maybe that’s one reason why friends might groan when they learn you’re seeing Cats. But don’t let that stop you. It’s two and a half hours of feline frenzy, in a way that no online video can bring.