Pictured (l-r): Darrington Clark, Emily Shackelford, Elizabeth Reese, and Morgan Walker. Photo by Tim Scott.
By Abigail Trabue
For over 35 years we have been attending the Jellicle Ball for Jellicle Cats, and asking ourselves what exactly Andrew Lloyd Webber was thinking when he put this together. We have watched with very little investment as a group of actors dressed as cats sing about other cats and have a big ol’ party that would make Dr. Suess’ dog party jealous, until we are emotionally manipulated by that party crasher Grizabella, who wins everyone over by belting her face off. It’s as if Lloyd Webber wrote EVITA and then had NOTHING left to give in the story department, so he wrote CATS and STARLIGHT EXPRESS just to see how far he could go before someone ran an intervention, a.k.a. PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.
Having said all that, I’m a huge Andrew Lloyd Webber fan, and there isn’t much he can’t do musically that I don’t love (alright, JEEVES isn’t great), so I have been known to fervently sing along to the CATS cast recording and excitedly dance through a number or two, but I’ve never been able to make that love translate to the entirety of CATS as an audience member, until now.
Under the direction of Tim Scott, MTH Theater’s CATS has been taken to the Heaviside Layer and given new life. Along with an incredibly talented ensemble and designers, Scott has turned the ubiquitous musical inside-out and upside-down, propelling it into the 21st century in a relatable, timely, and downright fun way. And they did it without a single cat bodysuit in the room. It’s brilliant.
The minute you walk into the space, it’s clear this isn’t going to be your normal CATS experience. Set designer Rafael Toribio has conjured a badass environment through the use of weathered scaffolding and platforms. It’s urban and industrial and thrilling. There are no tires to bounce on or a trapeze to swing felines through the air. Along with the lighting design from Jamie Leonard, you sense the youthfulness and unpredictability of the setting. Lamps litter the backstage. Ghost lights, uplighting, plenty of color, and actor-operated spotlights set the mood. The physical world of CATS is a pop-up art installation that by tomorrow morning will have cleared out. The local junkyard it is not.
Then, out walk the cats. Cats you imagine Ziggy Stardust would have littering his spaceship. Costume designer Georgianna Londre Buchanan is a lady boss and she threw the iconic onesies away and went full-on glam rock — with touches of steampunk — and the results are so satisfying. When Old Deuteronomy (the excellent Ron Lackey) walked out in a top hat and long black coat, I had a “hell, yes” moment and almost stood up and cheered. He was sharp, and boy does Lackey know how to command a room and wear a coat.
From the very first chord, you can tell the cast and musicians love this show, love this reimagining, and are invested 100%. Resident music director Jeremy Watson knows these tunes aren’t laborious, and he doesn’t try to oversell it. They’re catchy … let them be catchy. Let them radiate with joy, sorrow, confusion, gentleness and accept them for what they are. It was refreshing to watch a band and actors sing with such uninhibited joy and power. Not to mention the mood-enhancing musical support from actors Morgan Walker and Elizabeth Reese on flute, and Darrington Clark on violin. There is something about watching an actor move through the space in character playing an instrument that is just so haunting and gorgeous.
This 13-person ensemble is solid, energetic, and so refreshingly diverse. Elizabeth Reese as Grizabella soars during “Memory,” and doesn’t play it safe. It is her number and there isn’t the ghost of Elaine Paige or Betty Buckley to be found in the room. Desperate, lonely, scared, and uncertain, Reese brings Grizabella to life, and refuses to let this cat be nothing more than a vehicle for the most iconic number in the show.
And did I mention this ensemble can dance? I was so sure this was going to be an evening of jazz hands and kick-ball-changes, but choreographer Kenny Prescott made me eat my words. With plenty of street flare and acrobats, strong stacatto and popping. Each number is full of sass and creativity. There wasn’t one bad mover among them, and my jaw hit the floor as number after number the male ensemble slaughtered the stage.
As Rum Tum Tugger, Anthony J. Gasbarre III brought the Mick Jagger swag, delivering my favorite number of the night. Taylor Avazpour, who I’ve loved in everything I’ve seen him in, is the quintessential triple threat, and if I could have altered one thing about the evening, it would have been to see him give us a little hip-hop tap, à la BRING IN DA NOISE, BRING IN DA FUNK.
Elise Poehling’s rendition of “Gus: The Theatre Cat” might be the first time I was ever moved by that number, paired with Bob Kohler’s touching portrayal of Gus. Austin Ragusin was movement-perfect as the Magical Mr. Mistoffelles. Emily Shackelford and Kayli Jamison sizzle in “Macavity: The Mystery Cat.” Morgan Lynn Sterrett is adorable and I don’t know where Joey Boos gets all that energy, but I’d like him to bottle it and give some to me.
This is the CATS we have all been waiting for, this is the Jellicle Ball you want to go to. Scott has given us a show with heart, and a show about community. He has managed to take a revue about a bunch of cats and turn the mirror on our own lives, our own communities, our own fears. Do not let this production pass you by.
MTH Theater’s CATS is a fancy feast of purrrfection.
CATS runs through June 24th. For more information visit musicaltheaterheritage.com.