The best reason to see Crown Uptown Theatre’s new version of “Cats” is to be blissfully transported by Karen Robu’s “Memory,” a haunting and heartbreaking lament by a faded glamour cat named Grizabella mulling over her long-lost “days in the sun.”
Robu’s powerful and nuanced solo is a showstopper that will leave you wanting to leap to your feet in appreciation.
But there are plenty of other highlight reasons to catch this energetic, quirky, innovative and slyly surprising show. It’s directed by Gigi Gans, Crown’s resident choreographer, who moved up to oversee the whole show because dance is so key to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical that ran 18 years on Broadway.
There’s the spoofy but full-throated Italian opera love duet between a swashbuckling pirate cat (Mario Castro) and a coyly not-so-helpless damsel (Stephanie Gilmore) – complete with an amusing modern “Titanic” twist.
There’s the gymnastic cavorting of a mischievous pair of cat burglars named Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Austin Stang and Janet Wiggins), who slink, leap, high-kick and cartwheel their way around the stage in well-matched precision.
There’s the cocky preening of bad-boy tomcat Rum Tum Tugger (Anthony Gasbarre), who parades himself in smoldering splendor in front of the ladies. Although composer Webber had wiry Mick Jagger in mind, Gasbarre is more sturdily macho, like Elvis or Tom Jones in their primes.
There’s the lengthy production number involving all the cats at the annual “Jellicle Ball,” a joyous and spiritual gathering to choose one of their number to be reborn into a new life. Choreographer Gans keeps the action intense but graceful, with new surprises around every corner – including filling out the chorus with 10 energetic kittens (kids 8 to 12), something the original Broadway show didn’t have. All of it came with strong support from music director Jesse Warkentin, who coaxed all the familiar music out of just three keyboards, percussion and bass.
The cast performs as a well-tuned ensemble – together but not in lockstep unison. After all, they are cats, not Rockettes. The characters retain their individual personalities with small differences, like hand gestures, postures or head tosses so we can pick them out of a group because they look quite a bit alike in their striped, skin-tight unitards with spiky and shaggy manes.
The show gets off to a strong start, both vocally and with steady, balletic poise, through Patrick Ball as Munkustrap, the leader of the pack and the chief storyteller. He introduces us to his somewhat eccentric feline family, as adapted by Webber from T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” Sadly, Ball doesn’t have flashy moments himself, but he’s the solid foundation that others bounce off of.
In similar fashion, Billy Lowrimore is a steadying influence as the grizzled patriarch, Old Deuteronomy, whose wisdom preserves traditions and continuum among cat generations. Lowrimore has a beautiful tenor/baritone that compels the cats (and us) to respectful, even adoring attention.
As the cat stories unfold (with some actors doing double duty), Mario Castro makes a spiffy uptown cat named Bustopher Jones in white spats; Ben Cramer is elegant as the grandiose, sparkly Mr. Mistoffelees; Lucas Walker is haunting as the aged and palsied theater cat, Gus, who comes to life as he remembers his glory days on the stage; and Kyle Gallegos is the skittering, scattering live-wire Skimbleshanks, the railway cat.
Anna Cooper is Victoria, the graceful white Persian (and the group’s dance captain) while Patti Cooper (a terrific tapper), Bonnie French and Molly McCloskey are often a roving, close-harmony chorus like the Andrew Sisters.
The oversized set by Greg Crane is a London junkyard that sprawls into the audience, making us feel we are right in the action. My only quibble is that the giant tire used as a dais looks a little boxy with zigzag treads that are raised rather than recessed. Lighting by Dan Harmon was appropriately shadowy and spooky but also sometimes a little spotty and slow in catching up to performers.
Dora Arbuckle’s costumes and Darian Leatherman’s wigs were beautifully detailed for some of the key players, but a little too stark and uniform for others, making it hard to distinguish them. Too, on opening night there were a couple of mike problems and a “magical” appearance that seemed to take too long.
But that said, this show is tremendously entertaining and a rare, must-see treat.