Sunday, January 18, 2015

MBS 'Cats' in Review - 15 Jan 2015

Jeremy Lee share's his thoughts on the touring production of Cats, now running at MBS's Mastercard Theatre till 1 February 2015.

Guess what? Cats is back in town, and I’m not talking about as a solution to our recent rat infestation in Bukit Batok and a certain restaurant in Marina Square, but that Andrew Lloyd Webber old chestnut that is taking up residence in Singapore for the third time, this time at the MasterCard Theatres at the Marina Bay Sands.

Cats opened in the West End in 1981 – yes, that long ago - and became the longest-running Broadway show in history until it was surpassed by another Lloyd Webber favourite, The Phantom of the Opera. It was first performed in Singapore in 1993, with local diva Jacintha taking a lead role, and it’s now back to caterwaul at a new generation of musical theatre-goers.

As a determined cat lover, no way was I going to miss this, but having seen the first local run with Jacintah (yes I’m betraying my age here), I was in no way under the impression that the cats in this musical are as cute and loving as my darling back home.

Shortly after the beginning of the show, we are shown why during the spoken, slightly eerie, The Naming Of Cats sequence, when the Cats head into the audience and treat some to an intense “up close and personal” experience that is more creepy than anything else.

Audience participation played a big part in this production, as the “Cats” reached out into the stalls and balconies many times, prowling among us once we are seated. It’s a treat for those whose idea of a good time at a show is lots of interaction with the performers, who in this show happen to be togged out in amazing, colourful costumes and make-up and do their best to delight with their able mimicry of feline antics. It’s not new of course - many stage shows have broken the fourth wall before in this way.

As the show really gets going, those who are new to this musical will be aware there isn’t really a plot or much characterisation – which is my biggest peeve with this musical, and obviously not the fault of this production.

The musical is based on T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book Of Practical Cats (1939), a collection of poems – not the best foundation for a gripping tale. As such, in lieu of a story, we are given the framework of an annual ball of what are known as Jellicle Cats, and introduced to each uniquely special cat in turn.

Those who are satisfied with being wowed by spectacular sets, lighting (the fairy lights that are strung around the walls of the Grand Theatre are a particularly beautiful touch), costumes, singing and dancing will be profoundly entertained. But those looking for some connection to the characters, emotional depth and food for thought will leave unsatiated.

Nevertheless, the performances in this production, thanks to the cast’s energetic execution of the choreography of Jo-Anne Robinson, do an excellent job of distracting me from the non-existent emotional heft.

In Act 1, a standout is the debauched Rum Tum Tugger (Earl Gregory), whose hip thrusts belies the show’s billing as a family musical. Alas, the rest of the act is forgettable fluff, especially the dance sequence towards the end that goes on for way too long to sustain our interest.

Act 2 is much more engaging, with at least 3 memorable sequences. The campy Growltiger's Last Stand, when theatre cat Gus (Richard Woodford, who possesses a credible operatic tenor voice), revisits the scene of his theatrical triumph as the pirate Growltiger. It’s the only time the back alley staging changes to that of a barge, with Siamese crew in wacky Asian-inspired costumes, and provides a welcome change of scenery. It’s a change of musical scenery as well, as the show dips its toes into an operatic aria.

Two other memorable sequences are when a sultry all-girl chorus sings and dances to a song about villainous cat criminal Macavity (Du San Paek), and the rousing performance of magician Mr Mistoffelees (Christopher Favaloro), who stole the show with his gasp-inducing leaps, somersaults and pirouettes.

And just when we think we’ve had enough excitement for the night, we have the requisite show-stopping eleven o’clock number when washed-out cat diva Grizabella (Erin Cornell) returns. The role, the closest thing to a female lead in this musical, serves little purpose than to belt out a satisfying rendition of breakout hit Memory, which became a pop hit at the time and is still a musical theatre staple to this day. While Cornell starts off winningly, it's when she belts out the ditty's last chorus, dripping with pathos, that I finally detected a tinge of feeling for her severly underwritten character. Too little, too late though. And quite fittingly, Memory is arguably the only memorable song in this musical.

As the show ends, we get the feeling that we really have been in the company of cats – nothing particularly deep, but lots of fluff and fun.

Cats runs till 1 February 2015. Check out the Events Page for tickets!

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