Ninth Life [by Matt Baker]
As with most performers born in the 80s with an interest in musical theatre, Cats was a major contributor to the soundtrack of my childhood. Seeing it for the first time, however, I was suddenly aware of how bat-shit insane the show is. The title is the subject matter, which is in turn the cast, which in turn sing about themselves. Cats is the kind of show Kanye West would write if Kanye West wrote a musical about Kanye West.
Cats‘ problem is that it has almost no story, instead relying entirely on the least important component to theatre – spectacle, and while there is no confusion as to understanding how this show would have been a hit in the 80s (and even a subsequent decade), it is simply not enough to hold an audience today. As Gus the Theatre Cat himself says, “Theatre is not what it was.”
Cue Andrew Lloyd Webber mid-2014 and his attempt to update the show. Even if his assertion that TS Eliot’s original Rum Tum Tugger poem was “possibly the first ever rap” (it wasn’t), reading the now 67 year old say “he has to do hip hop” is just as bad in action as it is on paper.
Cats is a show trapped in its era. If Lloyd Webber had genuinely wanted to update it, he needed to have been more precise as to not only what changed, but also what remained the same. Music theory requires that only one component (rhythm, melody, instrument, harmony, etc.) needs to be changed to significantly alter a song. A new lighting design that hadn’t been stolen from Starlight Express would also have been hugely effective, especially considering how bright the show is overall, and how much more interesting it was when the top lights weren’t in constant use. Asides from overall bible rewrites, this particular production would benefit from a massive volume adjustment. Even sitting right next to the stage left front speaker, I was underwhelmed by the majority of the show.
The few redeeming qualities of this production lie solely with a handful of the cast, and even then it’s mostly limited to their dancing abilities. The front line is incredibly strong, and as Mr. Mistoffelees, Christopher Favaloro’s grace and articulation makes the most notoriously difficult dance in the show look easy (it is potentially the only reason to see the show).
For a show in which literally almost nothing happens (for the life of me I don’t understand why the Old Deuteronomy/Macavity drama isn’t an earlier/central/longer conflict) it’s a shame there isn’t more narration from Munkustrap, as Matt MacFarlane’s vocal power, tonal quality, resonance, and articulation sets an immediate benchmark for the entire show, which no one else quite makes without help from the sound desk. He even manages to play a surprising amount of internal conflict with regards to Sophia Ragavelas’ Grizabella. Ragavelas’ herself has no problem vocally with the show’s most recognisable song, but cuts herself short by attempting to act it out, instead of simply relying on her vocal power and stage presence.
It’s understandable that musical theatre aficionados who have a special place for the soundtrack would be compelled to see this show, especially if they haven’t seen it before. But, trust me, spend the ticket money on a few bottles of wine, get your friends around, and sing-along to your cast recording. Chances are you’ll have more fun.
Cats is presented by Really Useful Group and plays at the Civic until October 11. For details see Cats the musical.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Bronwyn Elsmore