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article imageReview: 'Cats' remains a crowd-pleaser, in a smaller Toronto revival Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Jun 12, 2013 in Entertainment
Toronto - Say what you want about Andrew Lloyd Webber's “Cats”, but it's a show that knows how to captivate and move an audience. The current Toronto reboot, which opened last night, is lots of fun all the way through.
Never mind the thin storyline. Never mind the occasionally repetitive musical themes. You're here to experience spectacle, to hear some terrific songs with T.S. Eliot lyrics and, of course, to see human-sized kitties singing and dancing. On that level, Cats is one of the most critic-proof live shows in existence, and this revival at the Panasonic Theatre – directed by Dave Campbell, who's already familiar with this material – delivers exactly what you want.
Based on Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, it's a series of musical vignettes about a tribe of “Jellicle Cats”, one of whom will be chosen for rebirth on the vaguely described “Heaviside Layer” by the end of the show. You learn about the mischievous Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer (Michael Donald and Neesa Kenemy), the dastardly Macavity (Phillip Payne), the hip, contrarian Rum Tum Tugger (Martin Samuel) and the faded, shunned former glamour queen Grizabella (Ma-Anne Dionisio). Presiding over all is the wise, aged patriarch Old Deuteronomy (Charles Azulay), with Mukustrap (Michel LaFleche) providing much of the narration.
It's funny how time has made this show seem smaller in scale, and it's not just because the Panasonic is much less roomy than the Elgin (the venue of Toronto's first production of the show). In the 1980s, when Cats and Phantom of the Opera were new, the mega-musical was an overpowering spectacle, seen more as a feat of technical and visual wizardry than as “legit” theatre. But in 2013, we've been desensitized enough to the usual gimmickry and effects that we can now focus better on the music and the substance.
And it's refreshing to see how well much of Webber's music holds up – better than I could have imagined. The iconic “Memory” still packs a powerful emotional wallop, although the version in this remount tacks on a rock drum beat during the instrumental bridge that doesn't really work. Another wonderful highlight is “Gus: The Theatre Cat”, tenderly recounting the career of a frail old feline actor (Cory O'Brien) who “once understudied Dick Whittington's cat”.
That's not to say the show isn't without its dated moments. The synchronized group dancing in the lengthy “Jellicle Ball” sequence makes you feel as if just you've time-traveled to the set of an old Madonna or Pat Benatar video. Yet now that the I Can Has Cheezburger? age has brought cat adoration to heights never dreamed of since ancient Egypt, you could argue that Cats is more relevant than ever. It's a musical that really sucks you into the cats' world – which turns out to be much like our own, as the characters are all a mix of animal and human traits and tendencies.
To some degree, this Cats follows an old template: choreographer Gino Berti is adapting and reinventing the Gillian Lynne dance moves from the original 1981 West End production. But Campbell adds a very playful, spontaneous vibe to this staging. Cat characters move up and down the aisles and interact directly with the audience members, even during intermission. The Rum Tum Tugger even picks up and carries a girl in the front row.
Similarly, Tim Webb's set (a junkyard under a bridge, with oversized random props meant to suggest the cats' small stature) has a few cute winks to Torontonians, including a Canadien hockey stick and a discarded Tim Hortons cup. (This unfortunately clashes with lyrics implying a London setting, with references to Tottenham Court Road and Victoria Grove, but that's a minor complaint.)
The first half is technically solid, but it's during the second when the production really takes off as a visual spectacle. “Growltiger's Last Stand” opens the set up into a pirate ship, recalling Gus' most famous theatre role. In “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat”, cast members pull simple props together – a trash can, a lamp, tires – to create a convincing train. With “Mr. Mistoffelees”, the title magician (Devon Tullock) makes characters disappear and appear in a discarded oven.
But there's one odd misfire near the end, when the chosen cat (no spoilers) ascends to the Heaviside Layer: instead of being taken there by the traditional rising tire of past productions, the character disappears inside a weird projected rectangular hologram. The artificial, electric nightclub look of it undermines what should be a mystical, cathartic climax.
It's hard to single out any of the performances when the whole cast (all Canadian) is working so cohesively as an engine. Toronto mega-musical veteran Dionisio is fine as Grizabella; she can't match the power of Elaine Paige's definitive take on the role, but who could? Susan Cuthbert, in the same roles that she played in the '80s Elgin production, adds charm and perkiness to spare as Jennyanydots, Jellylorum and Griddlebone. Other scene stealers include O'Brien, who transitions smoothly between the shaking old Gus and his energetic younger self, and Jay T. Schramek, a delight as Skimbleshanks.
How much you like this revival of Cats may depend on your familiarity with the show. If you have magical memories of gargantuan-scale productions from years ago, you may be disappointed with this simpler retread. But if this is your first viewing – if you approach it with an open mind and take Campbell's version on its own terms – you'll have a great time.
More about Cats, Andrew lloyd webber, Theatre, Musical, megamusical
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