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"Cats," show #820

Whelp, I’ve seen it again. Cats, the musical adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s poems purred its way through Fresno for a two-night stand last week. As expected, I enjoyed the choreography and most of the tech, especially the costumes. As expected, I did not care for much of the musical. To me, it’s basically Cat Prom, and after the rousing opening number, “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” it’s still Cat Prom, and we’re all just wallflowers who wait to see who gets crowned Prom Queen. To be fair, most of the Wednesday night crowd were very much enjoying the production, and I can’t knock that. Nostalgia plays a factor here, since Cats has served as many a patron’s first musical. There are some memorable songs, to be sure. And it’s (mostly) pure wholesome entertainment (but you can thank Eliot for that). However, and this was something I didn’t notice prior (having previously seen just one production of Cats), in order to be an entertaining jellicle cat, one must have the “it” factor, and not all who don the whiskers in this touring company have that.

Highlighted performances in this tour come from Devon McCleskey’s turn as Munkustrap, delivering wonderful vocals and narrative charisma in “Old Deuteronomy” and “The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles;” Tayler Harris delivering a stellar “Memory;” and especially the show stopping duet by Chelsea Nicole Mitchell and Lauren Louis in “Macavity, the Mystery Cat.” Mitchell and Louis are one of few exceptions where the song-and-dance talents are given full service to inciting legitimate excitement. Capping it off is the always-enjoyable “Magical Mister Mistoffelees,” danced divinely by Paul Giarratano. Tony Mowatt, appearing in the role of Asparagus, delivered an emotionally generous and alluring performance alongside Kayli Jamison’s Jellylorum. Mowatt found all the comedy and sweet-natured nostalgia of being the old theatre cat that we theatre nerds are attracted to like cat nip.

However, not enough charismatic, engaging jellicle cats were present for this production to truly change the mind of many skeptics. This is, still, Broadway’s fourth-longest running show, and I scratch my head as to why. The imbalance between exposition-attempting Act One and memorable hit-after-hit in Act Two is truly glaring in this tour. It’s almost exhausting getting through Act One just to get to the much-better-scored Act Two and the story’s eventual wrap-up (spoiler: Grizabella wins Prom Queen!). The aforementioned lack of “it” factor became apparent when understudy Jose Raul Mangual took his turn as Rum Tum Tugger. Yes, Mangual looked great in the outfit, sang the notes accurately, and did the dance turns justice, but without that “it” factor present, especially with such an inherently written charismatic role, the two best male-led songs are given short shrift vocally, and the energy gets drained through the auditory and visual lack of gravitas. However, everything shouldn’t reside on Rum Tum Tugger’s shoulders, with such a supporting cast that is, whether by material or by direction, lackluster.

The attempt at having the numerous dance numbers sort of tell a story is growing wearisome in this day of the post-Golden Age era of musicals. It’s not that Cats doesn’t have merit, to those who love it. But as a piece of theatre, perhaps it’s time to pick through the other musicals in the Lloyd Webber catalog and let this tour live out its ninth life, letting these dancers chassé and pirouette into another dance-heavy show with memorable tunes; believe me, there are plenty of them out there.

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