Philippine Daily Inquirer, 08.01.2010
[Note: My review of “Cats” on the front page of today's Inquirer. The show runs until Aug. 22 at CCP’s Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo. Call the ticket hotline (+63-2) 8919999 or visit www.ticketworld.com.ph]
THE CHERRY ON TOP, of course, is Lea Salonga as Grizabella, this production’s biggest draw and the reason even the theater-indifferent are now scrambling for tickets to “Cats,” the splashiest show of the year.
At Wednesday’s gala opening of “Cats” at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, you would be hard put to catch anyone among the chi-chi crowd that showed up, openly expressing even a hint of disappointment at the show that unfolded.
The applause was thunderous, the cheers heartfelt and hearty. Never mind that a furtive glance here and there during the show would reveal the barong-clad geezer two seats away from you nodding off, or the bejeweled matron busying herself with her Prada bag as the felines onstage launched into yet another distended dance-o-rama.
They paid the equivalent of a poor man’s salary for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s warhorse of a musical (top tickets at P7,000) and, fair enough, for that money they got the real deal--a production that reassembled on the Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo stage all the elements that made “Cats” such a groundbreaking musical when it opened in London in May 1981.
These included John Napier’s jaw-dropping set and costumes; David Hersey’s lighting; Gillian Lynne’s inventive choreography; Lloyd Webber’s daring potpourri of melodic genres and styles set to T.S. Eliot’s airy verses, all held together by Trevor Nunn’s masterful direction.
Jo-Anne Robinson recreates Nunn’s blueprint for this show.
Worth a look
The Manila staging, courtesy of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, David Atkins Enterprises and Citibank in association with Lloyd Webber’s own The Really Useful Group (and local partners Concertus and All Youth Channels), is as close as local audiences can get to the original design and intent for the show.
That does make this “Cats” worth a look, even if the stagecraft arrives here only some 30 years after its West End debut. (To the question whether the touring show is ever tweaked for local audiences, a producer told the assembled pre-opening night media: “‘Cats’ does not change.”)
It simply goes on and on. The beast, we’ve been told, has nine lives. That must explain the extraordinary longevity of the show that bears its name. From where we sat on Wednesday, though, watching “Cats” baring its art-directed claws (until Aug. 22 at CCP), we could make out, at most, two.
There’s the “Cats” of the often breathtaking staging and delightful performances, particularly Adrian Ricks’ virtuoso Mr. Mistoffelees (his 24 balletic turns taking a page from “Le Corsaire”); Shaun Rennie’s authoritative singing and dancing as Munkustrap; an alluring Bombalurina in Monique Chanel Pitsikas; John O’Hara’s scenery-chewing Rum Tum Tugger; and John Ellis’ indispensable Old Deuteronomy.
To each of the cats, Lloyd Webber assigns a distinctive piece of melody, and it is his abiding genius that the songs not only enhance the innate music of Eliot’s lines (“Old Deuteronomy’s buried nine wives/And more—I am tempted to say, ninety-nine/His numerous progeny prospers and thrives/And the village is proud of him in his decline”), but also come across as organic to the character.
The score itself is a pastiche (as in Lloyd Webber’s earlier “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”), but the deftness and specificity with which the motifs are applied are unassailable. Thus, the narrative lilt of “Gus: The Theatre Cat;” the plausible stab at operetta in “Growltiger’s Last Stand;” the charming Andrews Sisters-like harmonizing in “The Old Gumbie Cat;” the propulsive staccato of “Macavity;” and the majestic church-anthem quality of Old Deuteronomy’s “The Ad-dressing of Cats,” which caps the musical triumphantly.
For every less-than-compelling musical number, Nunn and his team devised a diversionary tactic, as it were. In “The Old Gumbie Cat,” it’s a scintillating tap dance; in “Skimbleshanks,” an ersatz train assembled from various oversized items in the trash heap.
Through all these, however, there is also the “Cats” of sheer sugar overload. After one more cutesy set piece (“The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles” lives up to its title), after yet another high kick and hip thrust of Lynne’s feline-mimicking choreography, the repetitiveness becomes tedious, the anthropomorphism wearisome. (Yes, that poor geezer has reason to doze off.)
“Broadway’s first show for the tired Japanese businessman” was how Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik appraised “Cats” in their book “Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time.” And they’re already fans.
The grinding earnestness of the musical’s revue format--its bent for visual dash over recognizable conflict or emotion--frequently invests “Cats” with all the seriousness of a high-toned theme-park entertainment.
Those stretches of ennui are compounded by a weakness in this cast: Many of the songs sound unintelligible. The likes of “Mungojerry and Rumpleteaser” and “Skimbleshanks” would fly over the heads of those unfamiliar with Eliot’s verse.
We know the lyrics by memory from having listened to the soundtrack all these years. Surprisingly, hearing them live only rendered them muddy, inaccessible.
Which brings us to Salonga’s Grizabella. She stands out simply for the incandescent clarity of her singing, the lines unspooling from her throat in glistening ribbons. Her voice is, as usual, a marvel--soaring and crystal-clear.
That’s one-half of it. The other half involves a heretical thought. Is it possible for Salonga’s voice--the glorious instrument that has brought her to Broadway, and now to this pass--to sabotage her performance?
“Memory,” Grizabella’s big 11-o’-clock number, comes out of Salonga sounding pristine and radiant.
Now, consider how the former Glamour Cat’s backstory is described: “She haunted many a low resort/Near the grimy road of Tottenham Court./She flitted about the no-man’s land/From ‘The Rising Sun’ to the ‘Friend at Hand.’”
Grizabella is that most fascinating female variant in drama--the magnificent wreck. Blanche DuBois in fur. Here’s a woman of ruin haunted by years of gin and smoke, faithless men, backdoor trysts, failed promises--by a life of hardscrabble pawing and scratching made all the bleaker by the shining memory of her past glory.
Grizabella’s shabby overcoat and tatty fur are the perfect visual cues for her status: “You’d really have thought she’d ought to be dead,” sing the cats.
That kind of character requires a weathered voice--not a coarse or ugly one, mind, but simply a grittier, more grounded kind informed by the pathos of her condition. Salonga’s youthful-sounding “Memory” leaves the song curiously disembodied--her character’s spectral presence detached from that clarion sound.
Salonga’s uneven turn is but the two sides of this “Cats” writ large: spectacular surface, fuzzy interior.
You could, without much effort, glimpse from this show the audacity and quirkiness that made it such a game-changing work in its time. “Cats” in Manila is still a frisky romp with moments of true theatrical dazzle, thanks to a largely topnotch cast and undiluted production values.
Before that, it was the odd undertaking that proved the British could do a dance musical as well--as exhilaratingly--as the Americans could. More, “Cats” inaugurated the British invasion of Broadway and indelibly defined the surging era of the ’80s mega-musical.
With three other Cameron Mackintosh productions--“Les Misérables,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon”--the ethos of the Spielbergian blockbuster swept into Broadway, changing its dynamics forever. Without “Cats,” where would the warbling warthogs of “The Lion King” be?
But you could, also without much effort, understand why, in the course of three decades during which special effects took over mass entertainment, and the amusement park, the video arcade and the concert arena seemed to have dissolved into each other, “Cats’” unyielding chorus line of prancing furballs--“Now and Forever,” purrs its tagline--has made the show a curio piece. One of those form-busting creations that, in time, would run the whole hog from landmark work to cultural phenomenon to stale artifact and late-night joke.
The next time Old Deuteronomy seeks a new candidate to send to the Heaviside Layer, “who can now be reborn and come back to a different Jellicle life,” he’d be wise to consider his own show.