My daughter LOVES cats! Her entire life, she’s been obsessed with them. She has posters of cats, calendars with cats, countless books about cats, etc. When she was 6 years old, she got a kitten and I couldn’t get her to stop licking the cat (she just wanted to give it a bath). We even call my daughter Kat (even though her name is Katharine). I made the mistake recently of asking her if she could only save one life—me or her cat, whom would she choose? I lost. Are you getting the point? Some people are just that way. Likewise, some people simply HATE cats. Absolutely despise them! I had a friend who was terrified of cats because she said, “When you pick them up, you can feel their bones!” What? Okey-dokey. Suffice it to say, people have very strong feelings about these roaming felines and, likewise, people also have very strong feelings about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash musical, Cats—they love it or they hate it. When I first saw the show over 30 years ago, I hated it. Why? NO ONE told me going in that there wasn’t a plot! Don’t try and tell me otherwise. There. Is. No. Plot. Just like the recent trend of jukebox musicals wherein creators have tried to stick a bunch of already popular songs into a show and piece them together with a feeble storyline (Mama Mia, Head Over Heels, All Shook Up, etc.) and present it as a traditional “book musical,” Webber had the idea to take a bunch of old poems written by T.S. Elliot and piece them together by setting them to music and “claiming” there’s a story somewhere mixed in the big ball of yarn. Had someone told me beforehand that there wasn’t a plot, I wouldn’t have spent the entire show becoming more and more frustrated pirouette after dizzying pirouette. What was a “Jellicle?” What’s the “Heaviside Layer?” What am I missing?? Oh yeah! A plot! After multiple viewings over the years, and after fully embracing the structure of the show (songs and dances set to cat poems without any real story), Cats has grown on me like a thick coat of fluffy fur. It’s a feast for the eyes, the ears and the heart—just not the brain, and that’s okay.
Mounting a show like Cats is a beast! It’s a huge challenge (choreographically and vocally) and it’s definitely a show that no sane community theatre should attempt to produce in a million years. Few community theatres in America have enough talent to sing it. Even fewer community theatres have the talent to dance it. Trying to find a community theatre that has enough talent to do both and you’ve overdosed on catnip! Theatre Memphis, though, over the past few years has proven itself to be nothing like most community theatres. They’ve shown that they can attempt and masterfully pull off almost any show they choose. Cats, while not “purfect,” still showcases the best of what Memphis has to offer—extremely talented singers and dancers. Yes, not everyone on the stage hits all the highest of notes or extends their kicks to the highest of heights, but Theatre Memphis’ production will still leave you in awe. You’ll find yourself muttering to yourself, “Damn, that’s impressive!” so many times that you’ll start to lose count. So, in honor of those nine lives every cat is supposed to have, here are the top nine most impressive moments from the show:
#9. The Orchestra. Boy, do I miss the days when musicals had a full orchestra with strings, a horn section, woodwinds, etc. It’s such a richer and fuller sound and provides the perfect opulence that only a live theatre experience can offer. I know it’s not cheap, but I appreciate Theatre Memphis allowing us to hear at least one trumpet and one woodwind. This show needed it.
#8. Cassie Thompson. Lots of different cats are introduced throughout the show and Ms. Thompson kicks things off nicely as Jennanydots as she literally rolls onto the stage. She exudes energy and personality and is simply fun to watch. Her jump-roping skills are a highlight.
#7. The Set. No surprise here. Jack Yates has done it again with his solid, large and impressive set. In an homage to past Memphis staples, signs such as “Mall of Memphis” and “Seesel’s” are scattered throughout the junkyard set eliciting a bit of nostalgia for longtime Memphis residents. While the set was grand, it didn’t really leave enough room for the multitude of dancers to fully showcase their abilities because they were pushed downstage by the massive set, but also limited by the two gaping holes downstage where the orchestra members sat (talk about cats walking a tightrope). It was terrifying watching dancers spin, jump and run backwards around two death pits waiting to swallow them. I wasn’t sure if I should be more worried about the dancers falling in or the musicians waiting to be crushed. Suspense-worthy for sure!
#6. Jared Harden. Perhaps my favorite number from Cats has always been “Mr. Mistoffelees.” I think it’s because it requires such an amazing dancer and I’ve always envied any dancer who was talented enough to dance the part. Once again, Theatre Memphis doesn’t disappoint in finding a dancer who can shine bright in the talented Mr. Harden. Man, can he dance! And jump! And spin! He’s one cool cat!
#5. Crystal Brothers. As the lead female dancer for the show, Ms. Brothers gives credibility to everything “dance.” Whether it is dancing solo or dancing with the ensemble, her skills as a ballerina shine through in a way that is intended to remind you of the beauty, elegance and grace that can only be conveyed by a cat. Beautiful!
#4. The Choreography. I don’t know how much of the original choreography belonged to directors/choreographers Travis Bradley and Jordan Nichols and I don’t really care. The sheer volume of dance in this show is incomprehensible and the fact these guys were able to teach it to this large, amateur ensemble and in a limited amount of rehearsal time is beyond remarkable. Only dancers and/or choreographers out there can appreciate how hard this is and it should surely be appreciated.
#3. The Ensemble. I know I’m sounding like a broken record every time I talk about the talented ensemble in almost every Theatre Memphis show of late, but I can’t help myself. Did Theatre Memphis get these talented people to sign exclusive rights with them to only perform on their stage or is there a secret factory somewhere in Memphis where these people don’t really have day jobs, but just practice singing and dancing 24/7? I don’t know where these people are coming from, but Theatre Memphis is lucky to have them.
#2. Amy P. Nabors. Call me crazy, but I’ll still avow that I think the role of Elle Woods in the musical Legally Blonde is one of the most difficult roles to pull off in musical theatre and I was blown away by Ms. Nabors’ portrayal at Playhouse on the Square a few years back. This woman can do it all. Showing her range as a performer, Ms. Nabors turns in her glamorous blonde hair for a tattered gray coat as Grizabella, the less-than-glamorous cat shunned by all. Although her walk and movements were exaggerated almost to the point of distraction, Ms. Nabors nails the musical’s most famous song, “Memory.” Her rendition of the song is so glorious; you’ll wish the creative team could find a way to slow the song down more to allow the audience to bathe even longer in her exquisiteness. Who knew she had that much vocal power? Wow!
#1. Barry Fuller and Lydia Hart. For a show full of spectacle and choreography, how ironic is that the highlight of the night would be a quiet, sweet song about a cat named Gus who lived in a theatre? For audience members who don’t know Barry Fuller, the number still works, but for those of us who know we’re watching a performer in his 90’s who’s been on Memphis stages longer than most of us have been alive, it’s especially profound. The words to this song are perfect watching the character Gus (and Mr. Fuller) recount all the different roles he’s played in his youth and reliving the joy of these memories through his facial expressions. Simply watching Mr. Fuller’s facial expressions is a master class in acting. Combining the legend that is Mr. Fuller with the pitch-perfect (in tone, spirit and demeanor) singing of Ms. Hart as she tells the tale of this theatre cat will bring tears to your eyes. I’m not sure if it’s Ms. Hart, or the character she’s playing, that is looking at Mr. Fuller, or the character he’s playing, in awe throughout the song, but it’s perfection nonetheless. Never before have I felt honored to witness a performance until now. You’ll feel honored too.
As I mentioned before, Cats is not a perfect production. Theatre Memphis makes it difficult though to decide how to gauge its production because it typically exceeds most community theatre standards. For a community theatre, it’s top notch despite its occasional misses. Some of the lead performers reached valiantly, but couldn’t quite measure up. The make-up surprisingly didn’t “read” well from afar and under the stage lights. Instead of seeing distinct facial colors, lines, shades, etc., most of the cats’ faces looked like they were solid white or yellow. For the most part, the wigs (cat heads) all looked quite similar (an afro wig with ears instead of distinct differences) and I missed having the cats roam through the theatre as they often do on Broadway or the national tour. But, like a cat, I can be quite picky. Overall, this production will impress and entertain.
Theatre Memphis is still consistently presenting the best theatre in Memphis right now and Cats fits nicely into their repertoire. Unbeknownst to most, but only the savviest of Cats aficionados, some of the songs in this production have been eliminated and/or reduced which will make for a shorter, more enjoyable evening out on the town. Whether you’re a fan of the animal or the musical, you’re sure to find something to enjoy about this production. Just remember—There is no plot!
Now through November 3rd, 2019