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Marriott grooms 'Cats' to near purr-fection

I bet some Marriott subscribers let out a cheer when they learned the Lincolnshire theater was reviving "Cats" this season. I bet others rolled their eyes. The Andrew Lloyd Webber blockbuster has that kind of effect on audiences. Inspired by the T.S. Eliot poems that make up the whimsical "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," the show has suffered its share of slings and arrows since it debuted in London 33 years ago. And not all of them are undeserved.

The book is nonexistent. The plot is flimsy, consisting mostly of character sketches wrapped around a whisper-thin tale of reconciliation. The score -- which includes the showstopping "Memory" -- is a montage of mostly midtempo pop, rock, swing and R&B that is not especially memorable. Moreover its distinctive costumes (beautifully conceived for Marriott's revival by Nancy Missimi) and athletic choreography relegate "Cats" to the style-over-substance wing of the musical theater canon.

But Marriott Theatre compensates for those weaknesses with a superb ensemble of dancer-singers and an exceptional leading lady in Heidi Kettenring. As the faded Grizabella, she not only sells the showstopper, but makes it meaningful. That said, much of the credit for this revival's success rests with the supremely talented director/choreographer Marc Robin, who also helmed the theater's 2003 production.

"'Cats' can be about something if you make it about something," he said in a Marriott promotional video.

And Robin has done just that. His savvy storytelling and fresh, exhilarating choreography -- a breathtaking pastiche of ballet, jazz and gymnastics flavored with contemporary club moves -- make Marriott's a production worth seeing.

We meet the cats -- known as Jellicles -- as they gather for their annual ball, presided over by philosopher/patriarch Old Deuteronomy (the gloriously operatic Matthew R. Jones). At dawn, Deuteronomy will chose one of the felines to ascend to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn into a new Jellicoe life. The tribe spends the hours until then dancing and prancing, leaping and occasionally lounging on catwalks repurposed from Marriott's previous show, "Cabaret."

Their revelries are interrupted from time to time by Kettenring's Grizabella. Anyone who knows this veteran actress' work knows she has the musical chops to handle the role. But what struck me was her expressiveness, how her eyes revealed the pain of every slight and rebuke (and eventually the relief that comes from acceptance).

The once-glamorous Grizabella -- now frail and tattered -- has been exiled, although the reason for her banishment is never explained. It may be that the aging cat represents a future these young kitties don't care to contemplate.

Certainly not Rumpleteazer and Mungojerrie, a mischievous pair played with devilish good humor by the terrific duo of Laura Savage and Buddy Reeder, or the contrary Rum Tum Tugger, a wannabe Elvis played by Jake Klinkhammer.

Also on hand is the plump and sassy Jennyanydots, played by Tammy Mader, a top-drawer tap dancer and fine comic actress. The wistful recollections of George Andrew Woolf's Gus, the retired theater cat who still yearns for the limelight, make for some of the production's most real and heartfelt moments.

Woolf and Johanna McKenzie Miller supply gorgeous vocals and generate hearty laughs for their broadly comic, operatic duet as the rascal Growltiger (Woolf) and the imperious Griddlebone (Miller).

In an ensemble made up of top-tier dancers, Ellen Green, Raymond Interior and Sagiya Eugene Peabody stand out. Particularly impressive is the explosive Peabody as Mr. Mistoffelees, the magical cat. Peabody's indefatigable performance, which includes at least two dozen consecutive fouettés, stopped the show. Bravo.

And bravo to Robin, for transforming a modest show into a thrilling, surprisingly satisfying theatrical event.