Not Reviewing and Reviewing “Cats”

Jean Sramek went to see the musical “Cats” at the Duluth Playhouse: it was beautifully produced, the set was great, the audience loved it. But it was “Cats.” What’s a critic to do?


Not the Review

I like making fun of Cats as much as the next person.

Last winter, I was in a production of Steve Martin’s The Underpants at the Duluth Play Ground, the black-box satellite of our fine community theatre, the Duluth Playhouse. They treated us graciously from first auditions to Sunday strike. On opening night, we each received flowers and a gift certificate: “GOOD FOR ONE ADMISSION TO ANY PLAYHOUSE SHOW DURING THE 2006-2007 SEASON.” Next line, politely and in smaller font: “EXCEPT CATS.” This is because Cats would be expensive to produce, not something the Playhouse could give away for free. As we opened our cards, I looked at my gift certificate and mewed to my fellow cast members, “Isn’t it nice of the Playhouse to make sure we don’t accidentally see Cats.” They guffawed. We were some kind of theatre geeks, but at least we weren’t that kind. I relayed this scene to a pal, a veteran of the local theatre scene. “No,” she sighed, “Someone we know will be in Cats and we’ll have to see it.” Have to. Not get to, have to.

Cats is an easy target. It’s an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, it has no plot, it’s about as deep as a puddle of spilled apple juice, and it’s cultishly popular with the masses. It’s the Olive Garden. It’s white zinfandel. It’s Adam Sandler. What’s not to make fun of? Being too cool for Cats has become cultural activity unto itself. Writing about Cats is a challenge because its reputation so far precedes it. I gave myself this quiz:

The wildly popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats has now been released for production by non-Broadway theaters. It will be staged by the Duluth Playhouse, beginning July 19, 2007. How does this make you feel?

A. I am compelled to write several paragraphs about my apprehension at seeing Cats, for which I am too cool.
B. Cats! OMG! Cats!!! Yes! CATS!!!!!!!!!!!

I’m comfortable with my answer to the quiz (“A”) except that I have never seen Cats, and my top all-time pet peeve is a critique of a book/movie/play/song/food/thing by a person or organization who has never seen/heard/read/tasted/whatever the object of criticism. By reviewing Cats, I have the chance to erase this shameful hypocrisy from my permanent record.

The Review

Opening night is sold out. Not sold out as in “the house is sort of full, and there’s a rumor that we’re sold out, but you can still get tickets if you want them” but sold out as in “waiting list for the extra folding chairs.” This virtually never happens in Duluth. But hey, it’s Cats. I opt for a seat in the front row, on the side (it’s my secret shame; the cool people know that the best seats in the house are center and about five rows back, but I like the front row. Also, since I’m at Cats, I’ve clearly stopped caring about being cool).

Director Allen Fields has cast a pack of children ages 7 through 17 as “kittens,” who meow, crawl around the stage prior to curtain, and (AIYEEEEEEE!) rub up against Playhouse patrons at intermission. This is annoying as hell, but the young actors are so happy (“we’re in Cats!”) that all you can do is avoid eye contact and smile in the kittens’ general direction. The audience is vibrating with anticipation. (That quiz I gave myself? These people all answered “B.” Or rather, “B!!!!!” )Even the ushers and box office people are pumped. Everyone in this building is determined to have a good time. When the house lights go down and the spectacle begins, the performers take this determination to an even higher level. They embrace the fact that they are in Cats and squeeze hard.

The singing is great, the dancing is great, the costumes are great, it’s all great. It moves along nicely, has been well-rehearsed, and Fields has done a fabulous job of integrating Minnesota Ballet professionals with the non-dancer actors in the cast. The audience loves every minute of it, breaks into spontaneous applause not only after but during numbers. They start their Small Town Standing Ovation the minute the curtain call begins. Say what you will about Andrew Lloyd Webber (if you’re feeling obnoxious, say what I will), but he’s got a way with catchy tune. If “Memory” or the “Jellicle Cats” doesn’t stick in your head like cat hair on black dress pants, then the terrorists have won.

But what is Cats? I would like to ask that question in another quiz, an exit poll among both audience and performers:

    1. Did you enjoy Cats? If so, why?
    2.What exactly is Cats?

I have no doubt that many of the answers to #1 would be along the lines of, “Yes, because it’s Cats,” and that the answer to #2 would be, “Cats is GREAT!” It’s a continuous loop: the point of Cats is that it’s Cats.

For the uninitiated, here’s the deal with Cats.T. S. Eliot’s whimsical collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was set to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. ALW and lyricist Trevor Nunn added a few things, but basically the show is a series of catchy song-and-dance numbers about various types of cats. The themes include but are not limited to: cats are mysterious; cats are different from dogs; cats will perform mischievous acts and break vases; cats have secret places and quirky personalities; cats have that whole “nine lives” thing. That’s about it. When you think about it, it’s quite a lot to reveal about a species whose brains are the size of walnuts.

Cats, now released into the hands of the Playhouse and their ilk, can be performed by real people, directed by real directors, and so on. There’s not a lot to work with in terms of character development or story arc. The cast, aside from their competence and hard work in singing and dancing, basically do what the pre-show kittens do, only for two hours: act like cats. However, it is pretty neat that Nathan College and Sarah High School can not only worship Cats, but can audition and be cast. Or cats.

Another neat thing—in the case of the Duluth Playhouse production, by far the neatest—is the opportunity for design. Cats is set in an alley, full of garbage. That is where the cats hang out and do their anthropomorphized shtick. In this production, director Fields asked local designer Kevin Seime to create not just any garbage-strewn alley, but Hollywood’s. Seime, whose work can be seen mostly at the College of St. Scholastica and occasionally at the Duluth Playhouse, is a gifted designer, but his Cats set is nothing short of genius. Enter the theatre and you will see the lights of the Hollywood Hills in the distance; take your seat and spend the next two hours on a treasure hunt. Seime’s Cats alley includes sound-stage scraps like the railing from the RMS Titanic, the wicked witch’s striped legs with ruby slippers still attached; a fender from Herbie the Love Bug, paint-splattered drop cloths, a battered King Kong head, and cheeky billboard advertisements for Purina cat food. It’s worth the price of admission just to see this set. Seime’s instincts are dead-on; the set, like Cats itself, is fanciful and playful, and offers to provoke further thought only if you accept the invitation.

There are nuances to the characters in Cats, but you have to be a fan(atic) to discover those things. If you merely want to enjoy the show, you can. The Playhouse’s production is excellent. Never mind that there has been singing and dancing just as good, if not better, in other Playhouse productions. Never mind that there has been acting (bonus!) in other Playhouse productions. Never mind that there’s not a real orchestra, but rather a “virtual orchestra”; the lack of conductor and human musicians gives an overall impression of high-tech karaoke, but the canned orchestra delivers the faux-verture just as well as humans and, no doubt, works cheaper. People like me, who would rather suffer through performance art, or a Wim Wenders film, or a badly attended concert of experimental nyckelharpa and Hardanger fiddle, can do as we please. Those who want to have a joyful experience and not think too much can see Cats.

I like making fun of Cats as much as the next person. Except when the next person is 300 people, entranced with eyes shining, leaping to their feet to applaud Cats. When I’m with these people, I’m out of my league.