Cats
directed by David Mallet
(Universal Studios, 1998)

Cats holds the stage as a Broadway legend, drawing audiences of all ages back for repeat performances. Originally produced onstage by Cameron Mackintosh and The Really Useful Theater Company, with the original stage production conceived and directed by Trevor Nunn, Cats can now be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home. The video version, filmed at the Adelphi Theater in London, gathers a star cast from Amsterdam, London and New York and captures all the magic and music of a live performance.

Based on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot, Cats introduces us to the midnight antics of the Jellicle Cats, each with distinct personalities and tales to tell. "The Naming of Cats" opens the show, with specific questions about the nature of cats and revealing the true reason behind many a sunning cat's contemplation. Victoria, a young white cat new to these gatherings after dark, dances "The Invitation to the Jellicle Ball," signaling the start of the night's festivities. What follows is another explanation -- this time of the purpose of the gathering of Jellicle Cats. They meet once a year when their leader, Old Deuteronomy, chooses a cat to travel to the Heavenside Layer and come back to be reborn as another Jellicle Cat.

With the purpose of the meeting explained, the cats then introduce themselves, basically stating their worthiness to be chosen for the great honor of being reborn. Jennyanydots is an older cat who keeps the house neat, teaches mice to sew and turns scurrying beetles into a tapdancing revue. The Rum-Tum-Tugger stirs up the females with his sex appeal and his mischevious nature. The introductions are stopped, however, when Grizabella the Glamour Cat stumbles in; an exile after leaving to make her way in the big city, she's ragged and poor, looking to rejoin the Jellicle Cats. They shun her, and the festivities continue.

Bustopher Jones is the fat cat about town, while Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer wreak household havoc. The music takes a more spiritual, reverent tone with the entrance of Old Deuteronomy, the leader of the Jellicle Cats. For "The Awful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles," the cats all dress up as battling dogs, while Munkustrap narrates the Rumpus Cat's intervention. Grizabella interrupts again, crying her "Memory" of the way things used to be, while Gus the Theatre Cat remembers memories of his own. Skimbleshanks leads a rousing railroad romp, until Macavity the Mystery Cat kidnaps Old Deuteronomy and strikes terror into the hearts of all the cats.

It's Mr. Mistoffelees, though, that saves the day and returns the wise leader to his faithful felines. The evening draws to a close, with the "Jellicle Choice" made and the lucky cat making the journey to the Heavenside Layer. Old Deuteronomy ends the production with the "Addressing of Cats," instructing humans on the proper way to make the acquaintance of a cat.

The video version brings back many audience favorites, most notably Jacob Brent as Mr. Mistoffelees and Ken Page, from the original Broadway cast, as Old Deuteronomy. Elaine Page reprises her role as the original London Grizabella the Glamour Cat, while Sir John Mills, at the age of 90, tries on the role of Gus the Theatre Cat. Despite these familiar faces, though, the video production leaves out many scenes from the original musical. "Growltiger's Last Stand" was cut, simply because Mills was unable to play the part of a younger, more active cat; despite that, his rendition of Gus is particularly emotional and moving.

Verses from "The Old Gumbie Cat" and "Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer" were cut, as well as an extended version of Mr. Mistoffelees solo dance after his "magical turn." Many of the songs were lipsynced or overdubbed, including Skimbleshanks, Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, and Jemima. The rest of the songs were backed by a chorus and session singers.

Despite all these problems, Cats still features some stand-out performances. John Partridge as the Rum-Tum-Tugger brings down the house with his '50s-style attitude and sex appeal; his voice may not rival that of Terrence V. Mann, but his stage presence alone makes up for it. Etcetera, played by Jo Bingham, and Bombalurina, played by Rosemarie Ford, were also exceptional performances; each actor truly captured the essence of her character with believably real "feline" movements and personalities.

With choreography by Gillian Lynne, the dance sequences are truly technical wonders. Combining all types and styles of dance, the numbers range from solo dances to full-cast performances. Particularly of note is Victoria's dance that signals the beginning of the Jellicle Ball; her technical style, flexibility and grace are amazing to watch. The camera work leaves a little to be desired, however, as it cuts away from whole-cast shots and focuses instead on single cats, so that the overall effect of the dance numbers are choppy at times. However, these close-ups take up closer into the "feline" nature of the performers and give us a chance to see facial expressions that might not be seen at a live performance.

Cats truly is a musical for all ages; my 3-year-old daughter loves to watch, dance, and sing along. The songs are catchy (with the exception of the worn-out "Memory") and the dance numbers made me want to jump up and try them out myself. Those of you who've seen the show live may argue that the video version isn't nearly as good, but for those of us who'll never make it to Broadway, Cats still leaves its print as one of the most cherished musicals of all time.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]



Buy Cats: The Musical from Amazon.com.

Buy Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats from Amazon.com.