Let the Memory Live Again
A rainy night in Sydney in November 2015 saw the triumphant revival return of the third longest running show in Broadway history…Cats the Musical.
Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and based on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Cats the Musical premiered in the West End in 1981, Broadway in 1982 and Australia in 1985.
In 2014 Webber and the original creative team featuring Trevor Nunn – director, Gillian Lynne – choreographer and John Napier – design, re-united to bring Cats to a new generation.
I can’t recall when the first time I saw Cats was. It may have been during the 1989 or 1994 run Brisbane – or both. I know I saw the Circus tent tour in 1999 and I know I saw it in London in 2002. I know I watched the 1998 made for television DVD at least once every six months. Alongside Rock of Ages, it is my favourite musical.
So, it was with nerves, excitement and equal doses of trepidation and skepticism that I took my seat for opening night. I’d read some things about the revival changes that didn’t sit well with my purest Cats love, and the casting of a younger Grizabella also perplexed me.
The stage set at the Capitol Theatre was extremely elaborate, full of all the hidey holes, necessary for cats to pop in and out of (as well as to hold many of the props and onstage costume changes). As the orchestra, lead by musical director Paul White, commenced the overture my heart started racing.
As soon as those Jellicle cats took the stage for their Jellicle ball, I was enamored, overwhelmed, in awe and star struck at how incredible talented this assembled cast is.
Confidently lead by Matt McFarlane (Grease, Love Never Dies, Priscilla – Queen of the Desert) as Munkustrap, assisted by Daniel Assetta (2014 finalist Rob Guest Endowment award, Wicked) as Rum Tum Tugger, the insanely accomplished cast pounced, crawled, arched, purred, tumbled and leapt around the stage with seemingly effortless ease.
I can only imagine how physically demanding a role in Cats must be, including the capacity to remember all of that amazingly varied choreography. The magnificent “The Jellicle Ball” is one the most stunning musical theatre dance pieces, let alone the other intricate pieces like the tapping in “The Old Gumbie Cat” or the “Mr. Mistoffelees” solo (bravo Christopher Favaloro).
Each cat clearly had their own personality and maintained character throughout, whether during an on stage solo, running through the theatre or sitting on stage.
This review would go on forever if I was to mention every cat character individually so I’ll just say quality of not only the cast, but costumes, staging, lighting, music and overall direction is a credit and testimonial to the world class strength of the Australian musical theatre industry.
One of biggest changes in this new production is the change of The Rum Tum Tugger to a rap. Gone is the cocky, hip swinging, sexual crooner, replaced by a crotch thrusting, dreadlock wearing rapper. And I didn’t like it. This is a clear example of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”. I can understand the change was added to attract a different generation, but it felt unnecessary. Thankfully Tugger was brilliant during ‘Mr Mistoffelees’.
And that brings me to the other big change in this production, the casting of a younger Grizabella. The broken down and on-the-outs glamour cat, shunned by the Jellicle community, is one of the iconic roles in musical theatre. First brought to the stage by Elaine Page, it is one of those roles that is synonymous with it’s originating actor and all other actors since then are inevitably compared to the original.
The casting of Deltra Goodrem as Grizabella in this production raised a few eyebrows, including mine. I will admit it, I couldn’t understand why. To me, this isn’t a role to make your musical theatre debut in. It is one you work hard for and earn with years as a swing, supporting cast and lead roles.
And then, a few hours before the opening night, I read this interview with Delta and I started to understand the decision a little better. And then, from her first steps on stage and her first note of “Memory”, I understood completely. By the time it came for the full performance of “Memory” and those notes, I wanted to run and hug the casting director and creative team.
Goodrem was sublime. Magnificent. Her Grizabella is hauntingly beautiful and she inhabited the Jellicle spirit completely. And boy, can she sing! (what is one of the hardest musical theatre songs to sing). Bravo Ms Goodrem, bravo.
Actually, a full hearted Jellicle bravo to everyone involved. This is truly a spectacular production.
Cats the Musical is now playing at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney ahead of a national tour.