REVIEW: Cats stinks outside the box

Let’s not pussy-foot around. Cats is designed for one purpose only: It’s theatre for people who normally don’t go to the theatre. This statement will anger and offend some, but it’s true. Want proof? The only recognizable Edmonton theatre regulars amongst a crowd of 2,000 at opening night at the Jubilee Auditorium Wednesday were the theatre critics – and we had to be there. The musical runs through Feb. 26.

Cats must also be for people who don’t like having their sensibilities challenged, because Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous musical (based on “Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats” by T.S.Eliot) offers none of that. What it also doesn’t offer is a story. In fact, the play within the play – “Growler’s Last Stand” – offers a thicker plot than the main story. Think of Cats as dinner theatre with a better organizational flow chart. The corporation has sunk a lot of money into this tour and the corporation expects a lot more back. Here’s a good T-shirt slogan for this sort of popular entertainment: “Les Biz.”

Webber’s score is just one of the many hit and miss elements of the show, and let it be said that the second act is way better than the first. The overture reminds one of early Gentle Giant. At its best, the score comes from a pedigree of the best of Broadway and the best of Progressive Rock. At its worst, it stinks outside the box.

The story – such as it is – consists of each cat coming forth and telling of their character in song. The cats do not have to come up with a game plan to thwart jeopardy, because like the absence of story, there’s no conflict, no in-cat fighting. Insidiousness only comes when the score introduces diminished fifths. It is then the ‘fraidy cats scurry into hiding.

Now that we’ve established what Cats is, we canput it on a level playing field. The production is supurr-rb, dazzling in its precision. A lot of hard work went into the make-up and costumes, which go a long way to sell the personification of the characters. The caterwauling of the choir is mostly ethereal.

Cats wallows in its own cuteness like a real cat would with a spot of warm, mid-day sun on a cold floor. In fact, the play sails by on its charm the way Tim Tebow goes through life on his good looks and mediocre talent.

The biggest “hit” comes with Melissa Grohowski’s portrayal of the main character Grizabella. She gives “Memories” a wistful poignancy that hints at a former glory. Even if her performance doesn’t move you, it will at least make you forget that Barry Manilow once covered it.

Overall, there is nothing wrong with Cats that a little Bob Fosse and a lot of worm medicine couldn’t cure. But, to call Cats “theatre?” You can call it “Fancy Feast” all you want; it doesn’t change the fact it comes from the parts of animals that no self-respecting human would eat.

(Read preview here: Louie Napoleon, who plays Skimbleshanks the railway cat, talks about the anti-Cats backscratch.)