Talk about nine lives. Next month will mark 38 years since “Cats” premiered in London’s West End. (It opened a year later on Broadway.) Since then, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” has been staged thousands of times all over the world. Not only that, but come December a feature film based on the stage musical will open with a star-studded cast that includes Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift and Idris Elba.
In the meantime, Broadway San Diego is presenting a national touring production of “Cats” at the Civic Theatre downtown through Sunday. For those who’ve enjoyed the likes of Rum Tum Tugger, Mr. Mistoffelees, Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer before, it’s a frolicking reunion with familiar feline friends. For those new to “Cats,” if there actually is anyone new to “Cats,” there are plenty of eyepopping costumes and special effects, and an iconic song to boot.
That song, “Memory,” remains perhaps Lloyd Webber’s most poignant ballad. So resonant are its wistful lyrics and emotional atmospherics that it’s impossible not to be moved by it even after all these years. In this touring company, Keri Rene Fuller, as the aging cat Grizabella, delivers a powerful rendition worthy of the estimable women who’ve sung it in “Cats” before her, like Elaine Page and Betty Buckley.
Among skeptics, “Memory” has often been regarded as the one memorable song from this musical, though its constant instrumental reprise throughout the nearly two and a half hour show may have something to do with that. But this production in town is a reminder that if “Cats” has no other song as enduring as “Memory,” it is not without additional charms.
The cat costumes and vigorous (sometimes downright balletic) dance sequences are as reliable as ever, but it’s fun to be reminded that “The Rum Tum Tugger” is still an entertaining romp, with McGee Maddox looking like David Lee Roth with a tail, and swooning “kittens” surrounding him. The playful duet with Mungojerrie (Tony d’Alelio) and Rumpelteazer (Rose Iannaccone) is also a kick, as is the burlesque-flavored ode to “Macavity, The Mystery Cat.”
Best of all is the “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” number, complete with a light show, an audience hand-clap, conjuring and dazzling dancing by Tion Gaston.
For the uninitiated or for those who’ve simply forgotten, the story of “Cats” concerns sage Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase) choosing from among the Jellicle cats one to be reborn in the otherworldly Heaviside Layer. Until he does, the sung-through musical amounts to various colorful Jellicles introducing themselves by way of diverting dance-heavy tunes. Grizabella, left out of the fun, is treated as an outcast. But you know her day will come.
Then as now, “Cats” tonally is all over the map, one moment celebrating the inscrutability of the world’s felines and another sounding reverential, even choirlike. Not that such quibbling matters. This beloved musical isn’t going anyplace. Except to movie theaters, where Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella may become the next diva-cat to make memories. (Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 4/19/19.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat