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The secret to 'Cats' is all in the memories

Chances are that you already know if you're a "Cats" person or not. Chances might be that, even if you have not seen it, you've at least referenced the tag line from the 1980s-era "Saturday Night Live" parody commercial in which a hypnotist sends his glazed-eyes audience out to deliver the testimonial, "I loved it. It was much better than 'Cats.' I'm going to see it again and again."

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Marriott Theatre's Jellicle Ball. Actually, two things: the movie-to-Broadway-musical craze and the jukebox musical. By comparison with those cunning commercial calculations, Andrew Lloyd Webber's decision to create a bookless, dance-heavy musical out of light verse by that well-known master of whimsy, T.S. Eliot, seems positively avant-garde.

Director/choreographer Marc Robin first staged "Cats" for Marriott in 2003 in the inaugural nontouring local production. I missed it that time around, but as someone with decidedly mixed views about "Cats" (though not about cats; I am owned by a pair), I found Robin's production enchanting and even rather revelatory at points.

It helps, of course, that Marriott's in-the-round configuration more closely echoes that of the original London production, even if Thomas M. Ryan's set doesn't include the full junkyard treatment. If you're seated in a back row by the crossover aisles, prepare to be fondled. In place of that famous tire to the "Heaviside Layer," Ryan's set uses a folding fire escape and a series of elevated — wait for it — catwalks that double as jungle-gym apparatus for the more acrobatic ensemble members. But there is little onstage clutter to get in the way of the high-octane dancing.

It also helps that Robin has assembled a killer cast, from Heidi Kettenring's refreshingly defiant Grizabella (who reminded me of a harder-edged version of Don Marquis' Mehitabel) to George Andrew Wolff's Gus/Growltiger (Wolff also does a flamboyant turn as Bustopher Jones that put me in mind of Dame Edna — or maybe Rip Taylor) to Sayiga Eugene Peabody's showstopping terpsichorean master, Mistoffelees. I've never heard the full ensemble numbers sound better than they do here under Ryan T. Nelson's musical direction.

Here's the thing about "Cats" that I don't think I fully appreciated until this outing: It's really not for kids, though, of course, youngsters can easily enjoy it. At heart, and at its best, it's a show that requires us (those of us of a certain age, anyway) to look at ourselves through the double lens of who we were and who we are.

Robin gets that here. You can even see a hint of commentary on human gender roles in the way that the Jellicles first respond with near-horror to poor old Grizabella versus the warmth that greets Wolff's aging down-on-his-luck "theater cat," Gus.

After all, the lyrics to "Memory," the most famous number in the show, were adapted by Trevor Nunn from Eliot's non-"Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" poem "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," which includes such heartwarming sentiments as "Midnight shakes the memory as a madman shakes a dead geranium." (Not included in "Memory," presumably because it's hard to find a catchy rhyme for "geranium.")

Robin mostly nails the show's tricky balance between the unapologetic pathos of the old cats (including Matthew R. Jones' magisterial Old Deuteronomy) and their dying-ember memories and the swaggering mischief and libidinous prowling of the youngsters, such as Buddy Reeder and Laura Savage's Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer and Jake Klinkhammer's glam-rock Rum Tum Tugger.

He does so without sacrificing the eye-candy delights inherent in the original concept, enhanced here by Jesse Klug's flashy kitty-rave lighting and Nancy Missimi's inventive costumes, particularly her sculptural hoop-skirted garb for Tammy Mader's Jennyanydots, which Mader sheds to reveal the former flapper lurking in the expanding flesh of the sedentary old "gumbie" cat. It's a near-perfect metaphor for a production that handily provides new life for an old furry behemoth of a show.