Cats review kitsch, dated yet strangely adorable

Theres no plot, no subtext and no apparent point, but the tunes including Memory, sung by Leona Lewis drill into your brain like a flesh-eating worm

For the entirety of the two hours I sat watching Cats, which is back on Broadway after a 16-year absence, I had a version of the Muppets Statler and Waldorf routine going on in my mind. This revival is TERRIBLE, I thought; hideously dated, boring, empty, meaningless, unfunny, kitsch without meaning to be, complacent, simultaneously bloated and undernourished. Bringing it back was a terrible idea and Trevor Nunn, who directed the original and has been re-engaged for the revival, should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.

Wait. Wait a goddamn minute. What on earth am I talking about? This is TERRIFIC. Look at me Im actually smiling in the darkness! Look at these fun people on stage, doing scissor jumps and backflips in their cat-themed lycra body suits! This is amazing! How could anyone resist this? This is the most charming, life-affirming thing Ive ever seen. This is my nine-year-old self, leaping out to take the hand of my 40-year-old self and begging her to give up on her cynicism and submit to the magic! Look LOOK! its only bloody Magical Mr Mistoffelees!

I still have no idea which view is the right one. What I will say is that, as with every Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Ive ever been to, I travelled home on the subway afterwards humming a tune that had drilled its way into my brain like a flesh-eating worm. (In this case, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat.) I will also admit that, while there was, as ever, no plot, no subtext, no apparent point to Cats, in the aftermath of seeing it I felt very cheerful.


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Leona Lewis as Grizabella: a tough job. Photograph: Matthew Murphy

This production, which has transferred from London, originally featured ex-Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger in the role of Grizabella she who sings Memory but after demanding that her name go above the shows title on the awning, she was replaced at the last minute with Leona Lewis, a former winner of the British X Factor.

Lewis has a tough job. Cats is a show that is all chorus and no leads, with the exception of Grizabella, on whose shoulders must rest the musicals best-known song. And she has tough acts to follow: Memory has been covered, over the years, by Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion. In its original 1981 London production, Elaine Paige was Grizabella (a year later, on Broadway, it was Betty Buckley), with Brian Blessed as Old Deuteronomy and, somewhat incredibly, Sir John Mills as Gus, the Theatre Cat, here played with lovely pathos by Christopher Gurr.

But back to Leona Lewis. Any song from a show that has, over the years, unshackled itself from the score and become a standalone hit is hard to re-embed in the original narrative since, at the first strains of the opening bars, the audience tends to snap out of its reverie and be brought to a moment of keen self-awareness. Eh up here it comes!

So it was here. Lewis has a beautiful voice, but when she performed Memory, she was not Grizabella the mangy old cat, but Leona Lewis, pop star and seller of 20m records, just as, a few years ago, when Catherine Zeta Jones played Desiree in A Little Night Music (also directed by Nunn) she busted out of role to sing Send in the Clowns with the zip of the Incredible Hulk busting out of his shirt.

Perhaps this doesnt matter. A song sung on these terms can still be highly enjoyable, although in this case I found the performance of Memory rather stressful, particularly the crescendo at the end and the bits when Lewis listed dangerously to one side while doing some Acting. It was a relief when the story moved on.

The set is impressive, with a huge moon projected on to the back of the stage and large, junk shop-type furniture plastered all the way up the wings of the theatre. And the rest of the cast is very good, particularly Ricky Ubeda, the dancer who plays Mr Mistoffelees.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Nine lives a night: Andy Huntington Jones as Munkustrap. Photograph: Matthew Murphy

Id also forgotten how sinister Cats is in the middle, full of weird, trippy scenes that look as if they belong to the 1979 gang film The Warriors.

The shows original choreographer was the legendary Dame Gillian Lynne, and this production apparently features updated choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, who choreographed Hamilton, not that youd know it. Everything feels faithful to 1981, a testament, one assumes, to Lloyd Webbers conviction that, like Balanchines The Nutcracker, Cats is enough of a classic to require little in the way of modernisation. And he may be right; meddle with these juggernauts at your peril. The 2012 Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, which closed after a few months, was scuppered by what felt like to me an anxious and tin-eared modernisation.

Cats, on the other hand, is a period piece, which is part of its charm and also its peculiarity. I cant see it flying on Broadway in 2016. Too slow, too tame, too threadbare. And so why, 24 hours after seeing it and somewhat to my annoyance, am I still smiling?

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