Sunday, 5 May 2019

Cats - The Musical

The phenomenon that is Cats - The Musical is sweeping up and down the country this month. Based on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, a collection of poems published in 1939 by TS Eliot, Cats is not so much a story as an exploration of feline mannerisms and sociological behaviour through music and dance. Cats has become one of the longest-running musicals in London's West End, on Broadway and around the world, with audience members considering themselves experts because they can sing a few lines from its most famous song, "Memory". It was one of many 1980s productions to cement Andrew Lloyd Webber's name as a legendary composer of musicals.

It was with much excitement that my two nephews and I headed out for their first musical experience on a busy Friday night in Wellington. Mr 11 and I had already shared the thrill of a live performance at the NZSO Christmas Pops in December. I knew it would be a gamble taking a 6-year-old out well past his bedtime. He tried his very best to stay awake but finally succumbed at the start of the second half, curling up in his seat and reportedly "dreaming of the show" performing in front of him.

Sadly, this performance of Cats fell short in so many ways. I've spent much of the weekend trying to pinpoint why. About half an hour into the show, I wondered what was going wrong. Lack of energy? No, the cast were giving it their all. The set design? No, although the giant paddle boat wheel was a little strange and out of context. (I'm not sure how it relates to the Christchurch earthquakes, which replaced the original junkyard setting.) The dancing? No. The choreography was good and some of the solo dances were spectacular.

On reflection, I think the show was poorly directed with little or no musical direction and weak orchestration. The chorus numbers were sloppy and the out-of-tune leads (Grizabella and Rum Tum Tugger especially) were painful to listen to. Like the dancers, some individuals shone but it seems like the cast were left to their own musical merits. If they could sing, great! If not ... never mind. Mr Mistoffelees' dance was show stopping but the score just ambled along afterwards, leaving him robbed of his much-deserved applause.

Lighting cues could have helped showcase the costumes, which looked dull and demure in the downlights, and a follow spot would have guided the action on stage, particularly for children trying to follow the plot and identify the characters. The whole performance came together like a school musical production - and I know first hand just how challenging it is to put on a show.

Also, no cats visited the audience during the show or before the second half began - a lost opportunity to encourage some much-needed audience interaction.

This review and its comments actually sums up the performance really well. Taking a risk by messing about with a tried and true formula just didn't work. It's too late now to say "save your money" and wait to see the show next time an international cast tours it, but I wish I had.

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