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Feline Fantasy Filled with Fun


Back in the good old days, when musicals were original and not simply reworked plots from old movies or jukebox-inspired stories whose score’s based upon the canon of tunes from a particular musician or pop group, composers like Andrew Lloyd Webber found inspiration in his favorite childhood book, T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Unthinkable nowadays, but back in 1982 that show became an unstoppable hit that played “Now and Forever.” It was groundbreaking and unique, a musical without much of a plot, more like a dance concert, featuring anthropomorphic felines of varying ages and temperaments all performing underneath a full moon. First performed at the Marriott eleven years ago, Marc Robin has returned to create a new, intimate production of the musical that’s already sparked so many “Memories” for theatre goers.

Stripped of its traditional oversized junkyard set pieces, Thomas M. Ryan’s back yard scenic design provides director/choreographer Robin with loads of ground-level space and elevations onto which he can stage his production. Gone, too, are the familiar walls that separated the audience from the exterior aisles that circle the theatre. Instead Ryan has created an open neighborhood of colorful houses with illuminated windows that seem to stretch for miles; these homes are also mirrored in miniature above the stage, as well. Now, Mr. Robin’s cats are free to not only move about the in-the-round stage and up onto the catwalks that hover above, but to slink and skulk through the aisles, meowing and purring between the rows of spectators and even perching above their seats. In short, Robin and Ryan have delightfully brought this production right into the audience’s lap.

In the most ambitious lighting design ever seen at this theatre, Jesse Klug has provided multicolored instruments everywhere that pop on and off, shimmer with magic or just provide moody, moonlit illumination. Nancy Missimi and her staff have outdone themselves, creating a colorful palate of expressionistic feline finery, complete with gloves, leg warmers and manes of individually styled hairdos. And thanks to the talented Ryan T. Nelson, there has never been a fuller, lustier-sounding ensemble of voices to sing Webber’s beautiful score. Part pop/rock, part boogie-woogie and jazz, tinged now and then with a heartbreaking ballad and spiced with operatic and pure Broadway musical style, it’s clear why Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical won Tony Awards in 1983 for Best Score and Musical, among several others.

Every actor in this production is an inspiring dancer, but also a gorgeous singer. There’s no caterwauling in this production, but rather the bright, soulful singing of a talented cast of 26 extraordinary triple-threats. Just when you think the vocals are the best thing about this production, however, Mr. Robin’s choreography pulls out all the stops and creates jaw-dropping dance routines that evoke thunderous ovations.

Heidi Kettenring’s lonely, dejected Grizabella, once a glamourous beauty, is shunned by the younger animals until she reaches them with her heart-rending 11th-hour ballad that celebrates “Memory.” This actress continues to impress with every role she undertakes. Here she truly commands the stage, inhabiting both the physical and emotional life of this pathetic, beautiful character. Ms. Kettenring graces the stage for a very short while but in her limited time she demonstrates an entire course in acting for the musical stage.

Trying to cite particular excellence in this production is like trying to choose your favorite child. Matthew R. Jones‘ Old Deuteronomy possesses the maturity, stature and a resonant voice that belongs on the Lyric Opera stage. George Andrew Wolff’s multiple roles as Bustopher Jones and the particularly touching Asparagus/Growtiger have seldom been sung any better. He’s joined by opera diva Jellylorum, played by the funny and melodious Johanna McKenzie Miller. Jake Klinkhammer’s rock-n-roll idol, Rum Tum Tugger, is lovably boastful and flirtatious. Rumpelteazer and Mungojerrie, as played by the energetic Laura Savage and Buddy Reeder, are astoundingly flexible and full of fun. Brian Bohr’s scooter-riding Skimbleshanks covers the entire theatre during the course of his delightful number. Alexandra Palkovic and Summer Naomi Smart, as Demeter and Bombalurina, breathe animal magnetism into their sultry “Macavity.” Tammy Mader’s sweet, plump “Old Gumbie Cat” loses a few hairballs to become the fast-tapping Jennyanydots. And Sagiya Eugene Peabody seems to defy gravity effortlessly and energetically dancing as magical “Mr. Mistoffelees.”

Bringing back one of the most popular, original and longest-running musicals of the past 30 years and making it feel fresh and new isn’t an easy task. But setting it in a neighborhood, continually contrasting the eternal conflict between youth and age and focusing on Webber’s gorgeous, lush score while re-inventing the dance element, Marc Robin has given audiences a wonderful treat to welcome Springtime to Chicago.