Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Cats” has been a theatrical phenomenon for going on 40 years now. It’s a phenomenon that doesn’t look to be abating any time soon, with a new national tour traveling the country following a 2016 Broadway revival and playing at Bass Concert Hall through May 13, thanks to Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts.
Based on poet T. S. Eliot’s book of poems “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the musical made composer Andrew Lloyd Webber into a household name and inspired several decade’s worth of giant, sumptuous, over-the-top musical extravaganzas with budgets rivaling major motion pictures. “Cats” first opened in London’s West End in 1981 and then on Broadway in 1982, winning numerous Best Musical awards and going on to become the longest-running show in Broadway history (a record that would later be eclipsed by Webber’s own “Phantom of the Opera”).
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This new touring production of “Cats” is certainly in keeping with the large-scale scope of the original, wedding a sense of whimsy with a gritty aesthetic that treats a very silly subject quite seriously, indeed. The story is centered on a tribe of “Jellicle” cats who await the arrival of their patriarch, Old Deuteronomy, who will choose one of their number to be taken to a new life on the “Heaviside Layer.”
The vast majority of the show is then a series of musical numbers, almost in the style of a review, showcasing different members of the tribe as they each cavort and try to prove why they should be chosen by Old Deuteronomy. As such, “Cats” is light on story, but high on dance and spectacle. The choreography works in tandem with the larger-than-life junkyard set and the intricately designed lighting to create a sumptuous feast for the eyes that is at its best in the many high-energy full cast numbers.
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However, the score and book of “Cats” don’t quite hold up as well as the choreography and extravagance do, with the pacing proving haphazard at best and a lack of any real character depth. Of course, it is not meant to be a character-based show. Though there are some standout performances — Tricia Tanguy’s gorgeous, powerhouse vocals as Grizabella (standing in for regular Grizabella Keri René Fuller); Tion Gaston’s high-energy gamboling as Mr. Mistoffelees; Tony d’Alelio and Rose Iannaccone’s mischievous chemistry as Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer — it is the overall ensemble that excels here as they literally bounce off of one another enacting Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography.
The new national tour of “Cats,” then, is something of a known entity, with the same basic energy and impact as the original, record-breaking production. This means that though the text remains hokey and feels somewhat dated, the pageantry and playfulness of the overall presentation, and especially of the supremely committed cast, also retain their vitality and charm.