Cats Forever? Probably Not
I never did see Betty Buckley as Grizabella, the Glamour Cat (or Elaine Paige for that matter). Her 1983 Tony winning performance though has etched itself into our collective theatrical minds with all of its pain, beauty, and power. The song, ‘Memory’, is a classic from the long-running musical, Cats, that started out in the West End at the New London Theatre May 1981. Interesting fact: Judi Dench was originally cast to play the glamour cat but tore her Achilles tendon during rehearsal and was replaced by Elaine Paige. It opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1982 with Buckley as Grizabella and the rest is Broadway history (fourth longest running show in the history of Broadway). But my guess is, that this run won’t even come close to any kind of record for longevity.
Here’s tribute to the incredible talent that is Betty Buckley. Be warned, these songs may get stuck in your head on a loop and drive those around you insane. That was my PSA for the day.
Now, as I said, I was not lucky enough to have seen either Buckley or Paige as Grizabella, but I did see Cats for the first time at the then newly opened historic Elgin Theatre in Toronto in 1985. It was a big deal when this famous show ushered in a new period of theatrical renewal for Toronto, and I, as a university student studying Theatre design at York University, could not wait to see it. I had worn out my record (or was it a cassette tape) listening to all of these unique and exciting songs. I cannot tell you who played the part in the Canadian production for this two and half year run (if you can tell me, I’d love to know).
If I remember correctly, I loved the show. And seeing it last week, reminded me of all the reasons that I enjoyed myself back in 1985, mainly because it is such a similar show. Almost too similar. Seeing the Cats revival, directed again by Trevor Nunn, was like revisiting an old magician friend, but one that I had hoped would have tried a few new tricks, and maybe give us a bit different twist. Cats is a silly show, to be frank, and I know that at the time, back in 1985, it was historic. It changed what musicals were allowed to be. And I get that. But some shows don’t age so well. Don’t get me wrong, it is not a bad show in any way but it has just been remounted, not revived.
I will say that the professionals that have come together to perform these iconic songs are the best of the best. This is one of the greatest joys of seeing almost any show on Broadway. We are so fortunate to have the most talented and most professional dancers and singers around, auditioning for this show and the few joyous parts, and each and every one of those that were cast in this show are doing absolutely stellar work.
The standouts for me are the lucky actors and actresses who are, not surprisingly, attached to the songs that I love. Mungojerrie (Jess leProtto) and Rumpelteazer (Shonica Gooden) are the first to wow us with the song that is their names (besides the impossibly engaging opening number, ‘Jellical Songs for Jellicle Cats’). As are most of the cast, these two are super talented and exciting to watch, and they do not disappoint. ‘Macavity, The Mystery Cat’, the song, sung to perfection by the sultry and sexy Demeter (Kim Faure) and Bombalurina (Christine Cornish Smith) brought a huge smile to my face, as it took me back in time (to me singing and dancing to this song in my living room. Alone. Oh, tell me you didn’t do the same!). Some songs reminded me how bloated this musical is and was, such as ‘Gus the Theatre Cat’ and ‘The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles’, although well performed, they do go on a bit too long without a whole lot of payback.
But ‘Memory’ is the song that I’m guessing we all were waiting for and holding our collective breath to see how well Leona Lewis would do it and she does it justice. It’s as beautiful and heartbreaking as ever. A true masterpiece of a song, and it is sung very very beautifully by Lewis. Did she break my heart in the same way that Buckley does, even when I’m watching her sing that song on video from the 1983 Tony telecast? Not quite. It’s missing some of the alone-ness, sadness, and desperation that sends it over the top emotionally. Lewis does the job, moving the character around in the same wobbly manner, but not as feebly. She sings the song gloriously, and I was pleased. But, and here’s the whole thing, it doesn’t feel fresh, nor new in any way.
The choreography (additional choreography- Andy Blankenbuehler/original choreography- Gillian Lynne) may have new aspects in there, but it doesn’t feel any different. Maybe I’m not able to discern the differences but just like the direction, set and costume design (John Napier), and lighting design (Natasha Katz), it’s perfectly crafted and performed, but the show lacks anything new or innovative. If you’ve never seen the show, it’s worth the visit, strictly to experience an iconic show. But, when my good friend asked me if he should go see it, I asked him if he had great memories of seeing Cats before. He did. After I told him what I thought of the show, he concluded, “Well, maybe I will just live with my original memories from 30 years ago”, and I replied, “I’d say that would be just fine”.