Cats at the North Shore Music Theatre – 5 Stars
Reviewed by Claudia A. Fox Tree
North Shore Music Theatre http://www.nsmt.org/ presents “Cats,” starting Tuesday, Aug. 20 and playing through Sunday, Sept. 1. Tickets are priced from $45 to $75. Performances are Aug. 20 through Sept. 1, Tuesday to Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. A 2 p.m. matinee has been added on Thursday, Aug. 29. Kids 18 and under save 50 percent on Family Friday, Aug. 23 at 8 p.m. For tickets and information call 978-232-7200, visit nsmt.org.
During the familiar overture, before an actor even stepped on the stage, the fog, strobe lights, strings of tiny, colored lights from the ceiling, and hanging full moon made my heart flutter. Up and down the aisle actors appeared, too dark to make out, but with what appeared to be neon glowing eyeglasses. Then they disappeared. On stage, I could see an oversized sneaker, two-foot diameter bike wheel, three-foot high Campbell’s soup can, and enormous tin water bucket surrounding the stage, giving scale to the show (and its characters’ implied small sizes) and future places to come and go from sight. My excitement was building.
The North Shore Music Theater’s performance of CATS is THE family show of the summer. Because it is entirely dance, music, and song, with no spoken dialogue, and includes elaborate make-up, CATS is not often put on in local towns by high schools or youth drama. Here is a chance to see it in a unique venue, performed in the round. All seats are good seats. In addition, the actors approach the stage from multiple aisles, in full character, on all fours, sometimes coming right up to your legs, wanting a scratch behind the ear or to play with the empty candy box under your seat. Audience interaction is encouraged as the “cats” meander by seats, making this show purr-fect for kids.
I’ve seen this musical dozens of time, on video. That is to say that it has played at least once every month at my home since the Broadway cast staring Ellen Page recorded their live performance and released it on VHS in 1998, almost two decades after it premiered. To say I know all the songs is an understatement. I had to hold myself back from singing it aloud after years of hearing it throughout my house while I was cooking or cleaning. However, unless you are a fan, the most notable song from CATS is “Memory” which stands alone, with or without the musical to back it up. Katy Blake hauntingly performs this number as Grizabella the glamour cat when she remembers her once glorious past at the end of the show, “Touch me, it’s so easy to leave me all alone with the memory of my days in the sun.”
CATS is a musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” a collection of poems by T.S. Eliot. North Shore’s production is stunningly directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford. It has been translated into over twenty languages, but there are several moments in this musical where it is the dance that captures the audience with traditional synchronized movements, high kicks, and full splits, and also acrobatic handsprings, cartwheels, and aerials. There is even an impressive pas de deux (two dancers) and pas de trois (three dancers) from traditional ballet, all accompanied by a live orchestra under the music direction of Milton Granger. This show is a dance performance, as much as a musical.
When you observe closely, these cats look like they are from the 80’s with their “big hair,” leg warmers,” and torn clothing. But don’t get me wrong, the costumes are not “cheesy,” they are polished and perfect. When an actor puts on this degree of make up, they lose a part of their human selves and become the cat that they represent. The cuddly nature of cats and other cat behaviors are highlighted in this show from when they step out from the wings until they move through their actions on stage. Live performance, where I select what to watch, beats recorded video from a camera’s single perspective for this interactive performance.
I found it fascinating to watch all the cats, even those not featured, as they were grooming themselves, moving their arms as if about to explore and then changing their mind, and tipping their heads out of curiosity and then pulling away just as quickly. I laughed out loud to see the cats imitating dogs in “The Awful Battle of The Pekes and the Pollicles.” I was impressed by the quick costume changes from a present day overweight cat to a past-sequence wonder, like when Jennyanydots (Amanda Pulcini) becomes a tap dancing master as she rules over mice and cockroaches, whose costumes, by the way, were brilliant! At one point, the female cats and kittens performed a number that felt a little burlesque, and I smiled again.
Each cat has its own personality, which is a testament to the brilliant acting of the ensemble as they bring to life the stories of Rumpleteazer (Erica Cenci) and Mongojerrie (Mark Donaldson), Gus and Bustopher Jones (both portrayed by Bronson Norris Murphy), Skimbleshanks (Jonathan Stahl), and Rum Tum Tugger (Kevin Loreque). Rum Tum is a crowd favorite, but he wasn’t mine. He is the long-haired rock star of this eighty-esque drama, but wasn’t as sexy in voice or actions as I anticipated from the hair band glam I grew up with.
The story is simple, leaving all its energy to focus on storytelling through dance and song. The Jellicle cats gather once a year to decide on which cat can be reborn. Several cats take turns at nominating their favorite cat for this gift of rebirth. There ensues a song about that cat doing the introductions, or one about his/her nominee. Trent Armand Kendall has a commanding presence and deep resonating voice as wise Old Deuteronomy, who will cast the definitive vote. He listens to the stories and observes, watching, in particular, how the cats and kittens treat Grizabella. They hiss and ostracize her. Macavity (Joe Moeller) kidnaps Old Deuteronomy, but Mr. Mistoffelees (Ryan Koss), magically makes him return. The black sparkly Mr. Mistoffelees is my favorite character and his amazing dancing is a highlight of the show.
If you arrive early, there is a fabulous outdoor Garden Cafe, which was filled to capacity with folks spread out, sitting on ledges, and enjoying the beautiful afternoon during the time before the show. Inside, snacks are available like in a movie theater, with pre filled popcorn containers lining the counters for purchase.
The North Shore Music Theatre made a plea for membership before CATS started. Traditionally, they begin their season with a classic show. Next season, they will begin with Anything Goes, then perform Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Grease, Chicago, and finally close the season with Les Miserables, which they have not performed in seven seasons. I would have to agree with the Artistic Director, this upcoming fall season is a great time to become a subscriber.
For more on the show, see nsmt.org.