Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats pounces into Leeds Grand Theatre this week as part of a national tour. Following a revived engagement at the London Palladium, the record-breaking musical is back; offering its trove of iconic songs and magical dance routines with a few unique upgrades.
Based on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the show returns under the guidance of original director Trevor Nunn, associate director and choreographer Gillian Lynne, production designer John Napier and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. It tells the story of the night of the Jellical Cats, when one cat is nominated to pass over to the Heavyside Layer to be reborn.
Cats is a musical which is almost entirely sung through, with little dramatic interlude. The numbers are now iconic, ranging from the elegaic Memories (made famous by Elaine Paige) to the disco-funk of Mr Mistoffelees and jazz-sleaze of Macavity. The grandest number is The Jellical Ball, an indulgently progressive bravura showstopper with some wild synth, distorted guitar and blasting brass.
Irresistibly toe-tapping, Tim Davies’ upbeat musical direction has verve and a punchy brass section which resonates boldly in all the right places. Reassuringly, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s period synthesizer arrangement is fully retained in the soundscape, bringing an other-worldly fantasy to the production. There are phrases which wouldn’t seem out of place in a classic Doctor Who episode. Cutting edge for 1981, the artificial nature of electronic instruments may have quickly dated, however the unique personality of synthetic sound remains undiminished; landing itself in today’s much-lucrative category of retro-cool.
Gillian Lynne’s groundbreaking choreography is well served, with associate choreographer Chrissie Cartwright providing a boundless energy and an abundance of detail throughout the routines. The feline head movements are especially well played, providing a constant evocation of character. A particular highlight is The Jellicle Ball dance sequence, matching its score in terms of scale and complexity. Equally beautiful are a series of duos and solos, such as the the White Cat’s balletic showboating by Sophia McAvoy, which is impossibly elegant.
A massive cast provides a colourful clowder of cats on stage; a complex mass of movement which is at times pleasantly overpowering in scale. The universally superb cast includes Shiv Rabheru as a pocket-sized Mistoffelees, whilst Marcquelle Ward’s rapping Rum Tum Tugger is a delightful redevelopment of the original character. Mungojerrie (Joe Hentry) and Rumpelteazer (Emily Langham) are playfully brilliant in a circus-inspired double act, demonstrating outstanding stamina in an energetic song and dance routine. Marianne Benedict soars in a standout performance as Grizabella, offering a vocal triumph which matches the gravitas of her physical performance.
Cats offers an indelible source of imagery in its stagecraft, which is now embedded in the public consciousness for its unique style and presentation. John Napier’s production design is a beatifically realised mishmash of upscaled props, including a giant bedstead and car boot (smartly signed off with the registration NAP13R), punctuated with over-sized cereal packets and randomly abandoned junk. The costumes are stylistically diverse, visually striking and evocative of their original designs. Featuring elegantly painted faces, punk-inspired wigs and vividly painted body stockings, the outfits are steeped in Eighties’ fashion; showcasing legwarmers and lycra which add to the show’s retro-appeal.
Cats is a musical which has endured due to the craftsmanship which exists on every level of its production. Musically, the production is eclectic and adventurous, paired with charismatic choreography which defines a new standard of complexity and scale. The show offers a theatrical experience which remains unmatched; wholly unique, often bizarre, yet always flamboyantly brilliant, Cats is a thrilling ride full of wonder and pathos which will enchant all ages.
Cast: Josh Andrews, Aaron Hunt, Megan Armstrong, Greg Castigloni, Enric Marimon, Danielle Cato, James Titchener, Helen Turner, Marianne Benedict, Celia Graham, Phoebe Lewis, Lucinda Shaw, Javier Cid, Joe Henry, Matt Krzan, Kevin Stephen-Jones, Shiv Rabheru, Emily Langham, Marcquelle Ward, Lee Greenaway, Gabrielle Cocca, Sophia McAvoy, Connor McAllister Director: Trevor Nunn Writer: T.S. Eliot Theatre: Leeds Grand Theatre Duration: 130 minutes Dates: Monday 20th – Saturday 2nd July 2016.