I was looking forward to seeing the North Carolina Theatre production of Cats. I’d seen the show on Broadway in the early 1980s, and had come away from it in awe. Unfortunately, the NCT production fell short of my expectations.
For those of you not familiar with Cats, the show was conceived and composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot. The feline characters from Eliot’s poems are thrown together into a junkyard setting, singing and dancing their individual stories. The plot, such as it is, centers on the making the “Jellicle choice,” the cat who will ascend to the “Heaviside Layer” and return to have a new life.
The curtain at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium opened on a shabbily magical junkyard set, and John Bartenstein’s lighting with its cool, blue tones helped set a mysterious, nighttime mood. The NCT orchestra (led by music director Edward Robinson) was in fine form, performing Lloyd Webber’s quirky yet haunting score beautifully.
However, as I often find to be true in these days of miked shows, the sound balance was such that the orchestra occasionally overpowered the singers. The sound levels, combined with a lack of precise diction, resulted in an inability to understand the majority of the lyrics whenever the chorus was singing together.
When you have a show that’s almost entirely sung, not being able to understand the lyrics is a problem; and Eliot’s poems (written for his godchildren) are so fun and whimsical that it is a shame to miss the interplay of his words with Lloyd Webber’s music!
It was long enough since I’d seen the show that I came to this production with somewhat fresh eyes. However, two aspects of the Broadway production were truly memorable for this (at the time) young, wide-eyed dancer. The first was that most of the cast members were real, honest-to-God, trained dancers — not singers who could move, but dancers. Because of this, the choreography was amazing; and, on top of that, the dancers could really sing.
The second thing that blew me away was that the cast members truly moved like cats. A great deal of time had obviously been spent on mastering feline movements and mannerisms.
I was disappointed on both counts with the NCT production. Director Richard Stafford’s choreography was uneven, surprisingly stiff, and often repetitive; and, perhaps because of this, the dancing didn’t sparkle. As for the cat-like movements that had so impressed me all those years ago … in this production, they seemed like an afterthought — a gesture or pose tossed in here and there, but with little apparent effort at embodying the feeling of “catness” throughout.
That being said, the tap choreography for “The Old Gumbie Cat” was fun and crisply executed; and Will Porter and Amanda Lamotte were delightful in “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer.” However, the choreography for “The Jellicle Ball” was so underwhelming that it was halfway over before I realized that it was “The Jellicle Ball.”
The choreography for “Mr. Mistoffellees” seemed a bit frantic, and consisted largely of multiple turns à la seconde. Even though Ryan Koss succeeded in executing the steps, his shoulders were up a lot of the time, his arms were stiff, and his leg lines weren’t the best.
Setting aside the diction problems in the chorus numbers, the cast was generally strong vocally. Ian Parmenter as Munkustrap possesses a rich, clear voice and was a steady presence throughout the show. Thay Floyd’s Rum Tum Tugger grew as the show went on. Ken Prymus — who played the role on Broadway for seven years — made a warm and wise Old Deuteronomy, his voice resonant and full.
Lauren Sprague (Bombalurina) and Kinsland Howell (Demeter) delivered sassy vocals on “Macavity” and came closest to achieving the lithe, feline sensuality that I was hoping to see in the movement. (The choreography, by contrast, didn’t do justice to the wonderfully jazzy music of the song.)
Dirk Lumbard (Bustopher Jones/Asparagus/Growltiger) and Kathleen Lynch (Jellylorum) gave us the best moment of the evening in “Gus: The Theatre Cat.” Lynch’s voice was crystal clear and lovely, and Lumbard’s had a rich raspiness that beautifully evoked the character of the old thespian cat. The two actors had a wonderful chemistry with each other.
Jennifer Shrader’s Grizabella was appropriately sad and weary; and her voice was powerful, though a little nasal for my taste. However, she succeeded in wowing the audience with her rendition of “Memory,” the show’s most famous song.
In fact, the audience members obviously loved the production, and were on their feet cheering at the end. NCT’s presentation of Cats will deliver for most attendees, and will likely be a crowd-pleasing success. I wish I had been among those cheering. But at the end of the day, I’m a dancer; and, like A Chorus Line, Cats is — or should be — a dancer’s show.
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 9th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Zack Smith: http://www.indyweek.com/artery/archives/2013/10/09/a-novice-attempts-to-understand-cats-at-new-nc-theatre-production and Oct. 2nd Durham, NC mini-preview by Mary Alta Feddeman: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/cats/Event?oid=3702264; Oct. 9th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/10/09/3267062/theater-review-cats.html; Oct. 2nd Raleigh, NC WRAL.com preview by Caitlin Zanga and Kathy Hanrahan for “Out &: About”: http://www.wral.com/cats-the-makeup-behind-the-musical/12946352/.
The North Carolina Theatre presents CATS at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10 and 11 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 12 and 13 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $34.70-$115.25 (including fees).
NCT Box Office: 919-831-6941, ext.6944.
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115203/843992.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6941, ext. 5204, or http://www.nctheatre.com/tickets/group-sales.
2013-14 SEASON: http://www.nctheatre.com/2014-shows.
NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12th, performance.
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939 book of poetry): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Possum%27s_Book_of_Practical_Cats (Wikipedia).
Book: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
T.S. Eliot (poet/lyricist, 1888-1965): http://www.eliotsociety.org.uk/ (T.S. Eliot Society) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T._S._Eliot (Wikipedia).
Cats (1981 West End and 1982 Broadway): http://www.catsthemusical.com/ (official website), http://www.andrewlloydwebber.com/shows/?show=Cats (Andrew Lloyd Webber web page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cats_(musical) (Wikipedia).
Study Guide: http://www.tuts.com/Images/SeasonShowDocs/cats_study.pdf (Theatre Under the Stars of Houston, TX).
Baron Andrew Lloyd Webber (music): http://www.andrewlloydwebber.com/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Lloyd_Webber (Wikipedia).
Trevor Nunn (additional lyrics): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trevor_Nunn (Wikipedia).
Sir Richard Stilgoe (additional lyrics): http://richardstilgoe.com/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Stilgoe (Wikipedia).
Richard Stafford (NCT guest director and choreographer): http://www.richardstafford.net/ (official website).
Viki Atkinson danced professionally in musical theater for a number of years and later shifted her focus to choreographing for theater. Locally, she danced in the North Carolina Theatre productions of Cabaret, My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, Oklahoma!, and West Side Story. Additional performance credits include Kathy in Company, Peggy in Godspell, and the title role in Gypsy. Later, Atkinson lent her dance expertise to Spectator Magazine, serving as chief dance critic from 1987 to 1999. She also holds a degree in Dance Education from UNC-Greensboro; and she has taught extensively in a variety of settings, including Meredith College, Virginia Commonwealth University, Appomattox Regional Governor’s School (Petersburg, VA), and the School of Richmond Ballet. She was also on the faculty of the Raleigh School of Ballet for 10 years and directed the dance program at Martin Middle School for four years. Viki Atkinson recently returned to Raleigh after living in Richmond for six years, and is thrilled to be back in North Carolina! To read more of Viki Atkinson’s reviews, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/viki-atkinson/.