Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber divides theatergoers into lovers and haters. So if you belong to the latter group, look away now as I’m not about to change your mind.
However, I’m partial to an occasional dose of Lloyd Webber, and as an unashamed crazy cat lady, I actually like his musical Cats. If you don’t know anything about it, Lloyd Webber based it on a delightful series of poems written in 1939 by English poet T.S. Eliot. The first thought that struck me on attending the matinee was how popular it seems to be – the house full sign was up and there were a lot of children being taken to the theatre, some for the first time, and this should be encouraged. A ripple of laughter went through the audience when the lights went down and the first cats appeared, and a delighted little girl called out “Miaow”!
Despite what you may have heard, this is a delightful production of a well-known musical. And there is a lot more to it than Delta Goodrem as the celebrity casting, playing the role of glamour cat Grizabella. As that has been a signature role for Debra Byrne, Goodrem has come in for criticism as a pop singer doing music theatre. From my perspective, she certainly doesn’t have Byrne’s vocal chops, so The Big Song (Memory, of course…) won’t have the same impact that it had when Byrne sang it. However, many theatregoers in today’s matinee were first-time Cats’ audience members and they lapped up Goodrem’s performance. Before she became a pop singer, Goodrem had a solid bank of television acting work, so she does have some skills in this area and they were in evidence today. I found her characterisation as Grizabella quite believable, and she brought a tear to my eye when watching how she was ostracised by the pack of cats and how it hurt her. Of course, she is very pretty so fits the glamour cat idea well, and she moves in an elegant feline fashion on stage. So taken overall, Goodrem is not ideal casting for the role but she puts in a solid performance and the musical is about a lot more than just one cat!
Kudos should go to the entire pack of cats for their marvellous ensemble work, both as dancers and singes. The Regent is an ideal theatre for this big musical, and this production has the cats roaming the theatre, interacting with the audience and creating magic around us. Lighting is excellent and effective, and there was not one feline character who wasn’t giving his or her all to the performance. As far as individual performances go, aside from Grizabella, opera singer Jason Wasley puts in a fine performance with gravitas and excellent singing as the feline elder, Old Deuteronomy. Watch carefully in the curtain call to see Old Deuteronomy relax a little and show some restrained choreography!
Melbourne triple threat Josh Piterman gives us three fine characters as the corpulent Bustopher Jones, and the dual role as Gus the Theatre Cat (Asparagus) and his younger self Growltiger. You could hear a pin drop as Piterman gave us his deliberately aged voice as old Gus, complete with a paw shaking from palsy, related his story. This was one of my favourite moments in the show – no glitz, no tricks, just great acting and singing.
Daniel Asseta’s Rum Tugger Tugger was confident and flashy, as should be so with this character. I’m not a fan of the new rap treatment of his name song, but he is a charismatic performer and we get to hear his legitimate voice later in the show. Ross Hannaford delighted the audience with his nimble Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat. Christopher Favaloro’s magical Mr Mistoffolees was the other stand out for me – a former Sydney Dance company principal who wowed us with his dance excellence and mischievous feline face.
Diction is mixed – in some songs you can hear every word and some are indistinct in parts, but overall it works well musically. If you are seeing the show for the first time, and especially if you are taking children, it’s worth taking half an hour and reading the T.S. Eliot poems to the younger generation, as it will help make a lot of sense of the characters, as the song lyrics are based on the poems. But this is a good show to introduce to school-age children and anyone above that age to the magic of live theatre. If they happen to have an interest in dance, then that’s a bonus and Cats is definitely going to enchant them! It’s not always easy to find shows that will appeal to the whole family (excluding any Lloyd Webber haters) but this is a good one.