While Cats may remain one of the great enigmas of musical theatre, the current Fighting Chance Productions is such a joyous mix of sight and sound that you’ll forgive its slight story.
Inspired by TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical adaptation tells the story of a tribe of felines (which sounds a great deal better than the official “clowder” or “glaring” that denotes a group of cats) gathered in a junkyard for the annual Jellicle Ball. During this annual ritual, one of the elder cats makes the Jellicle Choice, deciding which one of their own will ascend to a place called the Heaviside Layer, and be reborn into a new Jellicle life.
If it all sounds a bit odd, it is even more tenuous as the story is only loosely bound together by a bunch of song and dance numbers that introduces each of the cats. But its slim story has never really seemed to matter to many theatre-goers, going on to become the fourth longest running show on Broadway. Talk about nine lives, the musical will even see a Broadway revival this summer.
To be honest though, for the less cynical, the musical’s most recognizable and enduring song, “Memory”, can actually pack a wallop, as demonstrated by a few tears from my theatre companion last night. Maybe it is my own advancing years, but I even managed to find my own happy place in the celebration and respect shown to the elder members of this cat tribe.
If you can get past its virtually non-existent narrative, there is so much to like from this company of pre-professional and community players. Starting with Fairlith Harvey’s beautifully realized costumes and wigs, to an ensemble that kills it in Rachael Carlson’s spectacular choreography, it also extends to some very exciting individual performances.
The bittersweet ballad “Memory”, is beautifully sung by Lisa Ricketts as the elderly and ostracized former glamour cat, Grizabella. No easy feat given its association with many iconic performances over the years, Ricketts is a powerhouse, singing with clarity and emotion. When she is joined on stage by a memory of her younger self, exquisitely danced by Lyndsey Britten, the moment is divine.
Other stand-outs include Kyrst Hogan and Shayna Holmes in the bluesy duet “Macavity: The Mystery Cat” that transforms into one of evening’s most exciting ensemble numbers. Ian Backstrom dazzles as Munkustrap, and Randy McCormick is incredibly touching as Asparagus in “Gus: The Theatre Cat”. Lucia Forward and Amanda Lau go all out with some wonderful acrobatic moves in “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer”, Levi Schneider shines as bright as his sequined costume as Mr Mistoffelees, and Doug Thoms’ wonderfully deep voice is a perfect match for Old Deuteronomy and Bustopher Jones.
Under Ryan Mooney’s direction, there is little wasted space inside the Jericho’s black box. Mooney even has the cats prowling the aisles at times, and it is hard not to smile as one found its head in the lap of a delighted audience member; you could imagine the purrs even if there was no scratching behind the ears. While there are a few sightline issues with some of the action on the stage floor, it is surprising how this large cast never feels crowded. Attention to detail can be everything, and watching the ensemble embrace their individual catness is one of this show’s other great delights.
Sound issues, that have dogged this company that consistently pumps out work on a shoestring budget, seem to have finally been solved. Huzzah!
Speaking of sound, musical director Adam Da Ros not only directs his small orchestra (Patrick Courtin, Peter Serravalle, Jazz Palley, Colin Parker, NoeLani Jung) with skill, but gets such a full and glorious sound from this ensemble it feels like they may very well blow the roof off the Jericho Arts Centre at times.
While I admit to still being somewhat baffled by the appeal of Cats, thanks to this energetic production, filled with a wonderful array of talent, I was closer to becoming a fan last night than I have ever been in previous viewings. It really is about as purrfect as this show can be.
Cats with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot. Directed by Ryan Mooney. A Fighting Chance Productions presentation on stage at the Jericho Arts Centre (1675 Discovery St, Vancouver) until March 12. Visit http://fightingchanceproductions.ca for tickets and information.