Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Letting the Cat Out of the Bag About “Cats”

Damn you, Andrew Lloyd Webber!  Yes, you’ve enlivened the world with major stage extravaganzas like Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar. Your greatest hit, The Phantom of the Opera, may have seemed overwrought to me, but it had the virtue of introducing thousands of fans to the joys of musical theatre. For better or for worse, you certainly know how to write a tune that won’t leave my head.

 On a recent plane flight, I decided it was time to check out the film version of one of your best-known works, a show about which I’ve had decidedly mixed emotions. I first saw Cats in 1985, when it touched down in L.A. as part of its first national tour. (So great was the public enthusiasm for this elaborate show—one emphasizing music, dance, and over-the-top scenic effects—that it ran for 21 years in London and 18 on Broadway.) In 1985 while writing on theatre for the Los Angeles Times, I had the fun of taking a backstage look at the show’s elaborate makeup designs. That’s why I was granted two  house-seats, which allowed me to introduce a very young relative to the magic of live theatre. Out of this came a passion for the musical stage that has never left him.

 So Cats, the stage musical, will always have a warm spot in my heart.  I’ve never thought of it as a play, exactly. It’s more like the masques embraced by the royals of Shakespeare’s day: a theatrical confcction that delights the senses through its appeal to eye and ear. But this stage adaptation of playful poems by none other than T.S. Eliot is not much on basics like characterization and plot. Here’s the IMDB summation of the dramatic throughline: “A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.”  Meaningful, no?

 I had thought that with its cartoony characterizations, its plotlessness, and its heavy reliance on whimsy, Cats would be immune to Hollywood’s meddling. And so it was, until 2019, when Tom Hooper (known for The King’s Speech and Les Misêrables) got his hands on it. Hiring a big-name cast, he set about transferring the magic of the stage experience to the big screen. Critical response was not pretty. Cats racked up a series of Worst Film of the Year awards, including the infamous Razzie, and audiences stayed away in droves. No one, it seems, wanted to watch actors with pointy ears, tails, and garish makeup, cavorting in close-up.  It was, in short, a catastrophe.

 Still, I persisted in being curious about this debacle. Some of the actors in the featured comic numbers, like  James Corden as the snooty Bustopher Jones and Rebel Wilson as domestic queen Jennyanydots, are as embarrassing as I had heard. Jennifer Hudson warbles “Memory” beautifully, but her pillowy lips spoil any possible illusion that she’s a cat. Idris Elba’s evil-minded Macavity makes no more sense that it did on stage. But somehow Judi Dench retains her dignity as Old Deuteronomy. To me the film’s vocal star was (surprise!) Taylor Swift, who looks a lot like a slinky feline as she belts out the jazzy “Macavity” late in the film.

 And when things are turned over to the dancers, in choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler of Hamilton fame, some glimmers of magic appear. The film’s one innovation is the addition of an adorable white kitten, Victoria, who listens in wonder to all the goings-on. Ballerina Francesca Hayward is absolutely purr-fect in the role.




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