Cats, despite its impressive success over the years, is a show that polarises Musical Theatre fans. People tend to love it or hate it – they are rarely ambivalent. I don’t want to enter into a debate today about the merits of the show itself – I am definitely biased as I have loved it since I first saw it as a teen in Sydney in the 80’s. Instead I will focus on this particular incarnation of the show – the changes made and the performance delivered in Melbourne last night, where the audience was far from unmoved!

The set was basically as I remembered – a clever representation of a junkyard scene with the size of objects enlarged to reinforce the illusion of the human performers as cats. It was also quite beautiful, enhanced with clever lighting to create a suitably magical environment for the ‘Jellicle Ball’ to occur. The backdrop depicted a full moon, with a scattering of stars, and covered in part by ragged clouds, in a hauntingly beautiful teal and blue colour scheme. The set spilled over the edge of the stage in such a way that the boundaries between the stage and the audience was blurred, and this effect was further enhanced by the lights strung up the walls and along the balconies. These lights were used to great effect at various times. Overall, the lighting design by David Hersey was stunning. The only effect I found jarring was the hundreds of yellow eyes during the Growltiger scene, when the lyrics clearly describe them as blue….

As I remembered from previous shows, the audience was surprised and delighted by the appearance of the cats in the audience during the opening number. They also lounged about the theatre during Intermission, shyly allowing photographs (with no flash). It was also a good opportunity to see the costumes and makeup up close and personal. Unlike some, the Cats costumes withstand scrutiny under full lighting. A clever combination of two dimensional designs on the bodysuits and more realistic three dimensional tufts of hair to enhance the realism, combined with the performers’ catlike mannerisms and movements, worked well to allow us to believe the illusion of grown adult humans as cats.

The choreography, created by Gillian Lynne, Jo-Anne Robinson and Bill Deamer, was strong and engaging. There are several extended dance numbers throughout the show that are in danger of being too long, but due to the exciting choreography the audience was captivated, and expressed their appreciation loudly at the end of each dance number.

The largest change in this version of Cats is the one I liked least. Andrew Lloyd Webber, in a bid to modernise the show, decided to make Rum Tum Tugger a ‘contemporary street cat’ and have him perform hip-hop. Rum Tum Tugger was my favourite character when I first saw Cats performed in the 80’s and his song, and the way it was performed, enhanced his character as a charming ladies’ man (ladies’ cat?) full of swagger and sex appeal. Unfortunately, although I didn’t hate the new Rum Tum Tugger rap version, it in no way enhanced that aspect of the character. When the female cats fall about swooning, it is no longer a logical progression. And worse, the ensemble portion of the song, before Rum Tum Tugger starts his rap, has also been changed and is now awkward and predictable, far less enjoyable than the original version.

The vocals in general were of a very high quality, as one would expect of a show of this calibre. I did find the spoken component to the ‘Naming of Cats’ to be slightly out of sync, rather than the whole cast speaking as one, but the vocal sound was excellent overall, and the harmonies were clear. The orchestra was a little loud at times, which made it hard to understand lyrics in the softer moments (several times I wondered how much I was getting because I already knew the lyrics…) and was so loud during the instrumental introduction that there was some distortion.

Vocally, both the highlight and low point for me occurred in the same song. Delta Goodrem’s rendition of ‘Memory’ was stunning. Her voice was rich and mellow, and showed a great deal of depth. In the reprise in Act 2, the audience was so moved by her power and impressive sound at the key change, they started spontaneously clapping and cheering while the song was still in progress (not great form at the theatre perhaps, but it did show their genuine appreciation). Unfortunately, Stephanie Silcock’s rendition as Jemima was far less impressive, sounding thin and unsupported, and with very poor diction. I must also add that poor diction was also my only criticism of Goodrem’s vocal performance. She has a pop music performer’s laziness with enunciation of consonants at the end of words that does not belong in Music Theatre. While I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her vocal performance, I did not find myself convinced of Goodrem’s portrayal of Grizabella. Beyond adding grey hair, they chose not to try to age her at all, and her comparative youth, displayed in her smooth, unlined face and grace of movement made it hard to believe she was an ageing cat ready to ascend to the Heaviside Layer. Regardless, ‘Memory’ is no doubt the most memorable and well known song from the show, and it was performed beautifully by Goodrem. I was also moved to get a little teary when Grizabella was accepted once again into the Jellicle family.

Other highlights for me included ‘Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer’, ‘Skimbleshanks the Railway cat’ and the creation of a moving Locomotive from ‘junk’ on the stage, and the dancing, acrobatics and pyrotechnics of ‘Magical Mr Mistoffelees’. The audience was entranced throughout and rewarded the cast with a standing ovation. This just proved that even with the changes (which personally I would prefer had not occurred) Cats still has the ability to captivate the audience and transport them to the magical world of T.S.Elliot’s ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’.