Jan 21, 2020
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Mission Impawsible: How Much ‘Cats’ Can a Person Take?

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Here, if you are not a “Cats” initiate, is what we will kindly call the plot. Every year, at the Jellicle Ball, the cats’ leader, Old Deuteronomy, chooses one cat to ascend to the “heaviside layer” and be reborn. The cats audition for this apotheosis (because Eliot’s poems are often written in the third-person, cat narrators sometimes sing on their behalf), and the honor this year ultimately goes to Grizabella, a former glamour dam (read: prostitute). She belts “Memory” — still a banger! — and then rises into the flies on an outsize tire that looks a lot like an alien spacecraft.

At intermission, I asked Jack for his thoughts. “I like it,” he said. He thought that Emma, his Maine coon, would like it, too.

“I’m not really sure what’s happening,” said his father, Tim Maloney, who was on his second Coors and wondering if he should have bought a third.

Maybe this is just the toxoplasmosis talking, but I was with Jack. The story remained as shaky as ever, and if the dramaturgy never troubled me as a kid, I now didn’t understand why the action yowls to a stop toward the end of Act I for a dance sequence. As Act II began, I saw that they had cut “Growltiger’s Last Stand” (wise) and retained a rejiggered version of “The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles”(less wise). The lyrics to “Memory” — a contribution by the original director Trevor Nunn — now confuse. (“If you touch me, you’ll understand what happiness is”?) The finale is a bore.

But the dancing — Gillian Lynne’s choreography, goosed by Andy Blankenbuehler — is as thrilling as ever. And I had never appreciated what a workout the show is (“A soggy mess is what I feel like afterward,” Emma Hearn, a cast member who fell in love with the show as a toddler, would tell me) and what a party. The music and dance rarely rest, and the immersion into the cats’ world is complete — helped, I’d argue, by the shameless theatricality of these obviously bipedal and very clearly human cats. And if you can hear a song as irresistible as “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat” and not feel your soul elate, you may be a stranger to joy.

I finished applauding and texted my editor: “Ha ha ha. I love ‘Cats’ now.”

Now and forever? That’s tricky. Earlier that morning, I had spoken to Scandalios about whether or not the movie’s flop had imperiled the show’s brand. It was doing as well as ever, he assured me. “It was selling out without the film, and it’s still selling out now with the film,” he told me. “ ‘Cats’ is ‘Cats.’”

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