This past weekend, Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, New York jumpstarted their 2012 season with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats. The winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1982, Cats still holds the distinction for second longest running musical on Broadway despite the show's closing in 2000.a
From the costumes to the makeup to the extensive set and even the talent, Gateway's production of Cats channels a Broadway-caliber production. Ken Page, who originated the role of Old Deuteronomy on Broadway, returns to the stage as the cat who will decide which member of the Jellicle tribe will be granted a chance to be reborn. His voice and his constant presence were an anchor in this production.
With a thin storyline, the musical showcases a handful of cats who are vying for this honor. Most notable was the performance from Rum Tum Tugger (Kevin Loreque), a playboy cat donning a leather bodysuit and Axl Rose-like locks whose pelvic thrusts and constant flirting made him incredibly entertaining to watch. At one point, he embraced his inner Elvis and grabbed an unsuspecting (yet enthusiastic) audience member and convinced her to shake it with him. Later, he blew her a kiss.
Another favorite was the story of Gus the Theater Cat (Garrett Taylor), a washed up talent who is clearly heading toward the end of his life. He is given the chance to shine in a flashback where he is young and agile again as Growltiger. In perhaps one of the more human of the feline tales, Taylor seamlessly transitions from Gus to Growltiger, and connects well with his stage partner Jellylorum/Griddlebone (Lucy Horton) as the two are constantly trying to top one another.
In Act II, Evan Autio charms as Mistoffelees skillfully miming and twisting to the familiar tune, "Magical Mistoffelees." With the help of Rum Tum Tugger, Mistoffelees expertly turns the stage into the center ring of a circus, a genuine one-man act. And one cannot overlook Munkustrap (David Raimo) who solidly emanates leadership in his stature and interaction with those in the tribe.
Expectedly so, "Memory", the most popular song to come from Cats (fun fact: it was the only song not to be based on one of the poems from T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats), was the most powerful and heart wrenching portion of the musical. As Grizabella (Jessica Hendy) apprehensively approaches the Jellicles, she longs to be young and reclaim the beauty of her youth. Hendy translates her regret, her nostalgia, and her prayer into something so hauntingly real… it's as if she is at risk of totally disappearing into the moonlight until the song reaches its hard-hitting crescendo and Grizabella is slowly brought back to life.
Adeptly directed and choreographed by Jacob Brent, this cast embodies the very nature of these furry animals, and does a fine job of displaying the distinct personalities of each of their parts. They roll around on the floor, rub against each other, hiss, fight, protect one another, and in the case of Grizabella, shun as a group. It takes the silent guidance of Old Deuteronomy to impress upon them the importance of acceptance.
Despite the long moments of dance with the absence of lyrics, the character driven storyline, and often times repetitive songs, Gateway's production of Cats moves at an acceptable pace given that for every slower portion, a more exciting one emerges. And while it doesn't feel dated, Webber's musical delights in its 80s vibe from the elaborate costumes to the rock inspired pieces of music (under the musical direction of Jeffrey Buchsbaum).
Although Cats may not have the strongest book, its true success is dependent on the strength and talents of its cast. Gateway's production follows this tradition. The dancing, the vocal talent, and the dedicated way these actors truly morph into multi-dimensional and graceful felines pay homage to the history and expectations attached to this well-known musical.