Much like the first album I bought, I will always remember the first musical I saw on stage. Musicals, or music in general for me, had been restricted to VHS, music channels or CD before then. Everything suddenly become so much bigger, and that is what resonates most in my memory. How could it not, with a cacophony of voices and choreography that was explosively elegant and soft; all under a low hanging full moon?
Cats was other worldly, and certainly set the motion for my own stage aspirations. Now, over a decade later, “let the memory live again”. Yet, this wasn’t the show I remembered. The same déjà vu moon had me convinced I had been here before, so why was everything so strange?
Based on T.S Eliot’s Old Possum’s ‘Book of Practical Cats’, the show is set on a junkyard playground where the annual Jellicle ball takes place. We are introduced to each feline friend and their personalities through song; lyrics from the 1930’s poems of Eliot and melodies of composer Andrew Llyod Web’ber. The show has had an impressive life span of over 30 years. Considered as ‘ground-breaking’ when it opened in 1981, Cats went on to be crowned the longest-running musical in the history of the West End in 1996. It then scooped up the same accolade in Broadway the following year. Translated into ten languages, performed in over 20 countries, while continuing to sell out tours; the longevity of a cat’s life holds true.
There are still glimmers of this shining success story during the performance at The Opera House. Sadly, an irresistible curiosity to update the show well and truly killed the cat. One moment in particular being the infamous Rum Tum Tugger scene where we are introduced to the cocky and charismatic Tom Cat of the show. Oozing confidence and sexiness, Tugger satirises the ‘bad boy’ of a given generation, so earlier performances used Elvis Presley as a model. The instinct to update this is the right one, but the result was oh so wrong and laden with stereotypes that came off almost cartoonish! Dressed with a backwards cap, gold chains and baggy pants, Tugger is updated into our 21st Century bad boy from the streets. Though, give him a slingshot and go back 15 years you’ve got Bart Simpson. Maybe Mr Webber is trying to relate to the Topshop generation, who are also stuck in the 90s.
Despite the tone given off so far, the cast are all evidently talented; both the choreography and the score are notoriously difficult. A phenomenal range is required from it’s singers and a fierce precision from the dancers, but above all, a collective ability to work as an ensemble. This, for the most part, the company did do well. On occasion, performers were in it for themselves rather than as a group, sending key moments out of sync. To be picky, in the opening song ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’, you really can’t have a lyric boasting the ability that all cats can begin a scale in high C, to then only have one cat demonstrate. Each cat has their opportunity to have their own moment, so I was disappointed that the ensemble scenes were not joint.
The most famous song of the show, ‘Memory’, is easily the best thing about this production, and thankfully went untouched. Grizabella (Anita Louise Combe), the Glamour Cat, sings this beautiful nostalgic song of remembrance of her glorious past, and declares her wish for a new life. To dominate a song of such magnitude is an astonishing accomplishment, and one that Combe’s performance was nothing short of.
Cats has one more of it’s nine lives left to live, and one I feel would be the thriving if it stayed true to what it does best. The rebirth of this classic was understandable but evidently unnecessary. This musical is one that has been passed through generations, and has done so with fond memories from the audience’s first experience. Like Grease or The Sound of Music, you can’t change the originals. Some memories last forever, it’s our job not to forget them.
Words by Kate Morris
Images courtesy of Ambassador Theatre Group