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When composer Andrew Lloyd Webber first played the score of the musical Cats for legendary theater director and producer Harold Prince, Prince was certain there had to be some deeper symbolism at work, and inquired if the show was perhaps an allegory for British politics. After an interminable pause, Lloyd Webber reportedly replied, “Hal … it’s about cats.”
Since its premiere in 1981, Cats has often been mocked as a fiasco with a paper thin plot, a charge that is not totally out of line, considering that each song is literally torn from a book of children’s poetry from 1939, and the premise of adult humans playacting as kittens suggests a drama school experiment gone awry. The show’s bad reputation wasn’t helped by the recent trailer release for a nightmarish movie version featuring a digitally bewhiskered Dame Judi Dench. But Cats is less about telling a story in a straightforward way, and more about the pageantry of musical theater and the raw emotions it elicits.
The opening number establishes that a tribe of cats called Jellicles are throwing an annual ball to celebrate one member of their group being chosen to ascend to heaven and be reincarnated. Most of the songs that follow serve to introduce the members of this feline festival rather than elaborate on that weird ritual. The actors and the audience are thrown into the play’s strange world immediately, with the cast entering from the back of the theater wearing oversized glowing LED eyes that evoke the show’s iconic brand, and preening for the lucky folks in the aisle seats.
What Cats lacks in story beats it more than makes up for by showcasing the considerable talents of the company, who must pounce from one number to the next, switching genres and dance styles every few minutes. The numbers work particularly well when the cats really lean into superstar personas, as with McGee Maddox’s high energy hair metal track “Rum Tum Tugger,” complete with cat groupies. The vampy “Macavity,” detailing the misdeeds of the show’s mysterious villain, as Alexa Racioppi and Emma Hearn play it could easily be put on in a smoky jazz club. And Mistoffelees (PJ DiGaetano) appears every bit as magical as his titular piece suggests, leaping and pirouetting almost too fast to be seen.
The dated source material has the potential to alienate audiences, particularly younger members, but the cast has nailed the tone and the humor of the text. The mischievous duo Mungojerrie (Tony d’Alelio) and Rumpleteazer (Rose Iannaccone) are hilarious crowd pleasers in their eponymous tune. “Gus: the Theatre Cat” could easily be a sleepy number, but Timothy Gulan’s Asparagus and song partner Kaitlyn Davidson make every dad joke land with energy.
Audiences don’t necessarily keep clamoring for Cats for the who’s who of kittens, however. They keep coming back for the climax of the show’s signature song, “Memory,” the metric by which any production of the show lives and dies. Sung by the character of Grizabella (Keri René Fuller), who spends the production hanging around the fringes of the set and getting chased away by the others, it provides the emotional center of the show as she finally is accepted by the group. It doesn’t much matter that the reasons for her ostracism remain murky, because when Fuller sings it, the song sends a collective chill over the audience. Fuller is memorable even when she isn’t singing “Memory,” imbuing the role with a slinky physicality.
The visual aspects of the production design also hold together, each element working as intended to heighten the implicitly strange setting. The stage is transformed into a junkyard with everything scaled up to make the cats look true to size, with fantastic use of oversized props like soccer balls, serving platters, and old shoes. Clever use is made of lighting: Spotlights shine down like moonbeams, a string of lights above the crowd goes up during a raucous dance number, and Mistoffelees wears a jacket bedecked with several Lite-Brite’s worth of multicolored lights. When the cats traipse through the aisles, as they often do, the lights allow for better viewing of the fantastic costume and makeup design, largely unchanged since the original run, right down to the aerobics leg warmers.
The Kennedy Center’s acoustics are not always ideal for musicals, and here the lyrics get muffled at times. Theatergoers who didn’t spend countless hours of their childhoods performing renditions of “Macavity” might find some words difficult to understand. Luckily, lyric comprehension is not crucial to the enjoyment of this production. It is tempting to ascribe meaning to Cats, but Cats does not reward close reads or deep scrutiny. Curiosity killed the cat, after all, so don’t think too hard and enjoy the show.
At the Kennedy Center Opera House to Oct. 6. 2700 F St. NW. $49–$149. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org.