New moves give Cats a second life at PPAC

photo by Matthew Murphy

By Kimberly Rau

Cats, the musical everyone either loves or loves to hate, is back at PPAC, this time with some new choreography from Andy Blankenbuehler, whose previous credits include In the Heights, Bandstand and the smash hit Hamilton. Besides that, it’s essentially the same show that’s been going on for literal decades at some place in the world, the crown jewel of the Andrew Lloyd Webber empire, at least as far as ticket sales are concerned.

In case you’re unfamiliar, Cats is about, well, cats. There is no overarching metaphor here. These are cats (Jellicle cats, which is explained sort-of-but-not-really in one of the songs), in a junkyard, at their yearly Jellicle Ball, where their esteemed leader, Old Deuteronomy, is slated to show up and select one cat to visit the “Heavyside Layer” where they will be reborn as a new Jellicle cat. The majority of the play is spent introducing various cats in the group, all through song (there are maybe two spoken lines of dialogue, plus hissing). And then at the end, someone gets picked to ascend into Cat Heaven while everyone else stands around singing.

So if you’re looking for a comparison, it’s kind like of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” except everyone is happy about it, and the music sounds like everything else Andrew Lloyd Webber has ever written. In other words, you aren’t going for the plot, or even the music, where the majority of lyrics are based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” a book of early 20th century poems. And while some of the songs are really standout (not even touching the super-popular “Memory,” which has been covered by some 150 artists, there’s also the jazzy “Macavity” number, along with “Mr. Mistoffelees” and “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer,” because Jellicle cats have names like a blind grab into the Scrabble tiles), it’s the dancing that really makes the show what it is.

Blankenbuehler has done a nice job with breathing some new life into the show. The dances are stylistically varied, from Fosse to classic ballet, and really slick. It’s been awhile since I have seen the original show (the revival in 2016 ushered in this new choreography) but it’s safe to say this is a definite improvement and a welcome update. The set is slightly tweaked but more or less the same, as are the costumes, but it feels like a new show thanks to Blankenbuehler’s work.

The cast itself is superb. Keri Rene Fuller plays Grizabella, the once-glamorous cat who has the job of blowing the theater roof off with “Memory,” and Fuller is more than up for the challenge. Her powerful belt does the number justice without making it overblown and she’s a joy to listen to. Tony d’Alelio and Rose Iannaccone as the acrobatic and mischievous pair Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, respectively, own the stage whenever they’re on it, and their title song is one of the best in the show, matched choreographically only by the Mr. Mistoffelees number, handled deceptively easily by Tion Gaston. Rum Tug Tugger, who is essentially a rock star, is played well by McGee Maddox, who puts enough attitude in his dancing that you almost forget you’re watching a play instead of a rock concert. The ensemble does a lot of the heavy lifting, and group numbers are a pleasure to watch.

In short, Cats is good for what it is. It isn’t Sondheim or high art, but who expects it to be? It’s a fun show with little plot or heavy emotional baggage, and the dancing is superb. If you’re a dancer, you’ll want to check out the new choreography. If you’re a Cats fan, you’ll appreciate the overhaul, and those interested in seeing it for the first time won’t be disappointed. Webber fans in general will enjoy it. And if you’re looking for something a little more risqué, plot-centered or musically adventurous, well, PPAC and the surrounding theaters have a lot of that coming down the pike or playing now.

Cats runs through Sunday, Jan. 27, at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St., Providence. Tickets start at $52 and may be obtained at ppacri.org or by calling 401.421.2787.

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