Musical Cats still contains moments of timeless, entertaining spectacle

CATS by Andrew Lloyd Webber (Mirvish). At the Princess of Wales (300 King West). Runs to January 5. $39-$224. 416-872-1212, See listing. Rating: NNN

Cats is a show that brings out some peoples claws, but makes others purr with delight. For me, it was the first original cast recording I purchased, dropping big babysitting bucks on the UK import, and then learning every song. My obsession ended when I discovered meatier musicals, so I felt tentative revisiting the current Mirvish touring production. Happily, those fantastical felines still mesmerize and enchant.

For the uninitiated, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber set T. S. Eliots Old Possums Book Of Practical Cats to music (with help from Trevor Nunn, who contributed additional lyrics and directed), and in May 1981 the new musical opened in Londons West End, running 21 years, spawning a Broadway production and touring worldwide.

The play introduces the Jellicle cats, with their tongue-twisting monikers and momentous personalities. Their leader is Old Deuteronomy (regally embodied by the sonorous Brandon Michael Nase) who by the plays end selects one cat to ascend to a heavenly metamorphosis. Despite its heavy core theme, Cats includes a long lineup of catchy tunes in which nimble actors harmonize, belt, recite and dance a variety of styles (yes, it includes tap-dancing cats).

All fans have favourites. Rum Tum Tugger (McGee Maddox, formerly of the National Ballet of Canada) with his growly voice and Elvis gyrations pleases the crowd, and so does Mr. Mistoffelees (PJ DiGaetano). Watching both performers dance leaves you mesmerized. Bustopher Jones and Gus The Theatre Cat are played by one actor (Timothy Gulan). Bustopher is fun but Gulans great Gus tenderly captures your heart. Jellylorums (Kaitlyn Davidson) warm, clear voice introduces Gus with the proper reverence.

The musicals most famous number, Memory, belongs to Grizabella (Keri Rene Fuller). Fullers rich voice showcases the songs beauty but doesnt reach the soaring heights of the originals (Elaine Paige in the UK and Betty Buckley on Broadway). Fuller doesnt capture Grizabellas hideousness and loneliness. This Grizabella isnt shunned enough, which undermines the emotion of the plays turning point.

The original production began its life as a song cycle and plot-wise it never evolved, something its critics deride. But whether you find it silly or whimsical, the show has always impressed and still does with the pure energy and physical strength it takes to perform wearing miles of spandex and fur. John Napiers original scenic and costume design remains charmingly intact.

Even with updated choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (from Broadways Hamilton), Cats will always be an 80s relic. But beyond the leg warmers and acrobatics it contains moments of timeless spectacle.


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