The razzle-dazzle of "Cats," a British cat cantata set in a junkyard that swept into the Winter Garden last night glittering like a few hundred Christmas trees, may be enough to keep you in your seat for two-and-a-half hours, if not exactly on the edge of it. But in spite of some effective moments, it makes for a strained and eventually wearing evening.
As all must know by now, this is a musicalization by Andrew Lloyd Webber of T.S. Eliot's often amusing but rather arch verse collection devoted to anthropomorphic felines, "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." The poems, including a couple of unpublished ones, have been juggled a bit to meet musical and theatrical ends, and the director, Trevor Nunn, has fashioned some new lyrics based on Eliot verses, most notably the words for the evening's Puccinian plug song "Memory."
Pairs of eyes blink at us from the darkness as the scampering melody of the overture is heard over and over. As the lights come up, the stage gradually fills with the prowling figures of players in body-stocking cat costumes. Long overhead strings of colored lights, enough to adorn the entire San Gennaro street festival, come on, and soon, though we've observed it as we took our seats, the fantastic junk-heap setting, along with the revamped (large thrust stage) and fancifully decorated theater itself, is revealed in theatrical lighting. From that moment on, there's scarcely a letup in the special effects, including a stairway to heaven, a trapeze, and, added for the Broadway production, a suddenly lowered scene showing the poop deck of a pirate ship whose Siamese crew members look like strays from a handsomely costumed revival of "The King and I," and for which Webber has provided a parodic duet drawn from Puccini's "Madama Butterfly."
There is, and I have been sparing in citing examples, too much of everything in this revised version of the less ornate, though still flamboyant, London original. Over all, designer John Napier's costumes, though they will almost surely rate a Tony next spring, far exceed the cat wardrobes established at the start, even allowing for the battle of the Pekes and Pollicle Dogs. At almost every turn, a flashy musical has been made flashier.
The large cast is uniformly excellent, and while there is nothing strikingly original about Gillian Lynne's choreography, she and director Nunn have done their level best to keep things on the move, even during lengthy arid sketches devoted solely to movement against the well-orchestrated score. From the opening "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats" to the closing "The Addressing of Cats," there are 21 numbers in all, of which I found the most enjoyment in "Gus: The Theater Cat," a number encapsulating the pirate scene, and "Macavity," a rhythmic piece anout Eliot's law-breaking "mystery cat." But despite the variety, musicality, and even aptness of Webber's settings, there is little or no true originality in this eclectic score. Taken together with Eliot's quaint verses with their many British references, the effect is often about as enlivening as a vicar's tongue after a spot of sherry.
Among all the commendable players, standing out are Kenneth Ard's superb footwork as both Macavity and the Rumpus Cat; Terrence V. Mann's Jagger-like strutting as a couple of slick toms, Betty Buckley's raspy depiction, to the "Memory" tune, of the faded Grizabella, "the glamour cat"; Stephen Hanan's appealing Gus (short for Asparagus in Eliot's whimsical view), as well as his Growltiger pirate king and Bustopher Jones'; Harry Groener's clear vocalizing and nimble steps as Rum Tum Tugger and others, Ken Page's Old Deuteronomy, and Fred Jones' Skimbleshanks.
The entire show is miked, of course, the elaborate sound design controlled from the familiar bristling console at the rear of the house, and an essential part of the special effects (the pirate ship is engulfed in vapor at one point) is David Hersey's spectacular lighting. Inasmuch as the orchestra is behind the scenes and the cast must take its cues from a conductor on a TV screen hung from the balcony, there are two musical directors.
"Cats" is as showy a show as one could wish for, and it is already eagerly sought after by a musical hungry public. Yet the feeling is inescapable that it is an overblown piece of theater.
One thing is certain. The new Broadway musical Cats, which purred into what is left of the Winter Garden Theater last night, is a shattering triumph for two men: the director Trevor Nunn and the designer John Napier.
This British import does less well by two other men - the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and the posthumour lyricist T.S. Eliot - and one woman: choreographer, Gillian Lynne.
But all of them - including Eliot's estate - can giggle rhapsodically all the way to prosperity, because Cats has already created so much interest that it will be a deserved box-office hit. It is a phenomenon in London. It will be a phenomenon in New York.
For audiences hungry for musicals and novelty, Cats is made to order. It has an intriguing amalgam of feline behavior, the snob appeal of Eliot's poetry (laced with a suggestion of his transcendental philosophy), lyrically undemanding music that sounds vaguely classical and sheer genius in its staging. Here is a potent theatrical cocktail.
The idea to create a musical from T.S. Eliot's 1939 collection of children's verse, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, originally belonged to Lloyd Webber - but somewhere along the way Nunn seems to have taken it for his own and shaped it to his will.
What Eliot himself would have thought of the idea - which was Eliot's widow's enthusiastic sanction - is anyone's guess. When Alan Rawsthorne once wrote a background score to the same poems, Eliot commented: "I like the idea that they are read against the musical background and not themselves set to music!"
Well, they are set to music here. Also - and more so here than in last year's original London production - Eliot's radiantly childlike view of anthropomorphic cats has been "cutesified."
There is a certain macabre, Edward Lear-like quality to the poems, that this show-biz, environmentalized extravaganza studiously ignores. When it is not being charming it is being either sentimentally lachrymose or portentously philosophical.
Old Possum had nothing to do with the redemption of the soul, as it does in this musical. It was a practical book about how to look at cats with the eyes of a child and the wit and fancy of a poet.
Here, very adroitly, keeping to the text but with a few interpolations from other Eliot poems, Lloyd Webber and Nunn have carved out a kind of linking theme - a Mary Magdalene concept of a whore's rebirth - that gives the musical a line and shape. It is clever for the theater but unfair to the essence of the poems.
Lloyd Webber's score is breathtakingly unoriginal yet superbly professional. Much of the lyrical passages (including the already famous song Memory which has provided a hit for Barbra Streisand) are to Puccini what Richard Addinsell's Warsaw Concerto was to Rachmaninov.
At times the score sounds remarkably like discarded passages from Puccini's Turandot, but the orchestration, fuller here than in London, by David Cullen and Lloyd Webber himself, is splendid, and the music is admirably hummable, even haunting. Ghosts often are.
But what sets the seal on the show's theatrical success is the mad authority of its staging. From the first glitter of cats-eyes in a darkened theater and the scamper of bodies around the auditorium, to the incredibly staged apotheosis when the alley cat ascends to cat-house heaven on a space machine that would have sent E.T. home happy, scarcely an error is permitted.
The theater is transformed. Napier has gutted it, removed its proscenium arch, re-arranged the seating and made the whole scene into a garbage heap surrounded by a cavern. But what a garbage heap and what a cavern - as strange and beautiful as Napier's cleverly and humanly feline costumes.
I don't think I have ever seen such decorative virtuosity on stage before. The stage is fringed with the detritus of civilization, from a broken-down ear to a discarded flotsam of cartons, bottles and junk. The whole magic wasteland is scaled to the proportions of a cat.
The set is far more elaborate than in London - despite London's use of a revolving audience, planetarium-style - but, one quibble: it seems strange to fill this rubbish heap with distinctly American junk that contrasts with the London topography and English sensibility of the text.
What Trevor Nunn has aimed for is the kind of lived-in naturalistic kind of behavior he captured in his Nicholas Nickleby. He gets it. These are cat people in a cat world, and despite all the tumultuous theatrical shocks and show-offs, most of them are piercingly enjoyable. It is the simplicity that gives Nunn's work its ultimate gleam.
Strangely enough, the dancing devised by Miss Lynne was conventionally indifferent in London and is conventionally indifferent here. It was claimed that it was going to be much improved, only the claim was a pious hope, a gleam of intention unfulfilled.
Also, to judge by advance publicity, the creative team was overwhelmed by Broadway's performing talent and the show was going to be much better performed.
Far from being better performed, in some instances the London cast was far preferable. Just as some of Lloyd Webber's changes - the new "Italian" aria in the pirate-king incident, for example - are mistakes, so is some of the casting.
Neither the mistily wan Betty Buckley as the broken-hearted alley cat Grizabella nor Ken Page as the patriarchal Deuteronomy is a match for London's Elaine Page and Brian Blessed, while to compare the nonentity of Timothy Scott with the greatness of Wayne Sleep in the principal dancing role is merely to draw attention to the creative paucity of Miss Lynne's choreography.
Yet as an ensemble the American cast does work better than its British predecessor, and Stephen Hanam, whether cast as an epicure clubman, a theater cat or an amorous pirate, is fantastic. His is by far the best individual performance, with only a few others coming close.
But remember, Cats is more than the analysis of its parts. Its importance lies in its wholeheartedness. It is a statement of the musical theater that cannot be ignored, should prove controversial and will never be forgotten.
Thanks to Nunn and Napier - and to Lloyd Webber, who has enabled them to start their miracles - this is theatrical wizardry at a compromised level of genius. But a great show, in itself and by itself, no it isn't. Still, see it. Or at least see if you can get tickets for it.
There's a reason why ''Cats,'' the British musical which opened at the Winter Garden last night, is likely to lurk around Broadway for a long time - and it may not be the one you expect.
It's not that this collection of anthropomorphic variety turns is a brilliant musical or that it powerfully stirs the emotions or that it has an idea in its head. Nor is the probable appeal of ''Cats'' a function of the publicity that has accompanied the show's every purr since it first stalked London 17 months ago. No, the reason why people will hunger to see ''Cats'' is far more simple and primal than that: it's a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theater and yet, these days, only rarely does. Whatever the other failings and excesses, even banalities, of ''Cats,'' it believes in purely theatrical magic, and on that faith it unquestionably delivers.
The principal conjurers of the show's spell are the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, the director Trevor Nunn and the designer John Napier. Their source material is T.S. Eliot's one volume of light verse, ''Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.'' If the spirit of the Eliot poems is highly reminiscent of Edward Lear, the playful spirit of ''Cats'' is Lewis Carroll, refracted through showbiz. Mr. Nunn and Mr. Napier in particular are determined to take us to a topsy-turvy foreign universe from the moment we enter the theater, and they are often more extravagantly successful at that here than they were in the West End ''Cats'' or in their collaboration on ''Nicholas Nickleby.''
Certainly the Winter Garden is unrecognizable to those who knew it when. To transform this house into a huge nocturnal junkyard for Eliot's flighty jellicle cats, Mr. Napier has obliterated the proscenium arch, lowered the ceiling and stage floor and filled every cranny of the place with a Red Grooms-esque collage of outsized rubbish (from old Red Seal records to squeezed-out toothpaste tubes) as seen from a cat's eye perspective. Well before the lights go down, one feels as if one has entered a mysterious spaceship on a journey through the stars to a cloud-streaked moon. And once the show begins in earnest, Mr. Napier keeps his Disneyland set popping until finally he and his equally gifted lighting designer, David Hersey, seem to take us through both the roof and back wall of the theater into an infinity beyond.
The cast completes the illusion. Luxuriantly outfitted in whiskers, electronically glowing eyes, mask-like makeup and every variety of feline costume - all designed by Mr. Napier as well - a top-notch troupe of American singer-dancers quickly sends its fur flying in dozens of distinctive ways. It's the highest achievement of Mr. Nunn and his associate director-choreographer, Gillian Lynne, that they use movement to give each cat its own personality even as they knit the entire company into a cohesive animal kingdom. (At other, less exalted times, Mr. Nunn shamelessly recycles ''Nickleby'' business, as when he has the cast construct a train - last time it was a coach - out of found objects.)
The songs - and ''Cats'' is all songs - give each cat his or her voice. If there is a point to Eliot's catcycle, it is simply that ''cats are much like you and me.'' As his verses (here sometimes garbled by amplification) personify all manner of cat, so do the tuneful melodies to which Mr. Lloyd Webber has set them. The songs are often pastiche, but cleverly and appropriately so, and, as always with this composer, they have been orchestrated to maximum effect. Among many others, the eclectic musical sources include swing (for the busy Gumbie cat), rock (the insolent Rum Tum Tugger), Richard Rodgers-style Orientalism (a pack of Siamese) and Henry Mancini's detective-movie themes (Macavity, the Napoleon of crime).
But while the songs are usually sweet and well sung, ''Cats'' as a whole sometimes curls up and takes a catnap, particularly in Act I. The stasis is not attributable to the music or the energetic cast, but to the entire show's lack of spine. While a musical isn't obligated to tell a story, it must have another form of propulsion (usually dance) if it chooses to do without one. As it happens, ''Cats'' does vaguely attempt a story, and it also aspires to become the first British dance musical in the Broadway tradition. In neither effort does it succeed.
If you blink, you'll miss the plot, which was inspired by some unpublished Eliot material. At the beginning the deity-cat, Old Deuteronomy (an owlishly ethereal Ken Page), announces that one cat will be selected by night's end to go to cat heaven -''the heaviside layer'' - and be reborn. Sure enough, the only obvious candidate for redemption is chosen at the climax, and while the audience goes wild when the lucky winner finally ascends, it's because of Mr. Napier's dazzling ''Close Encounters'' spaceship, not because we care about the outcome of the whodunit or about the accompanying comic-book spiritualism.
As for Miss Lynne's profuse choreography, its quantity and exuberance do not add up to quality. Though all the cat clawings and slitherings are wonderfully conceived and executed, such gestures sit on top of a repetitive array of jazz and ballet cliches, rhythmically punctuated by somersaults and leaps.
It's impossible not to notice the draggy passages in a long number like ''The Jellicle Ball,'' or the missed opportunities elsewhere. To a tinkling new music-hall melody that Mr. Lloyd Webber has written for Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, Miss Lynne provides only standard strutting. The stealthy Macavity number looks like shopworn Bob Fosse, and the battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles in Act I could be an Ice Capades reject. For the conjuring cat, Mr. Mistoffolees, Miss Lynne's acrobatics never match the superhuman promise of either the lyrics or the outstanding soloist, Timothy Scott.
It's fortunate for ''Cats'' that Miss Lynne is often carried by the production design and, especially, by her New York cast. At the risk of neglecting a few worthy names, let me single out such additional kitties as Anna McNeely's jolly Jennyanydots, Donna King's sinuous Bombalurina, Bonnie Simmons's tart Griddlebone, Reed Jones's railroad-crazed Skimbleshanks and Harry Groener's plaintive Munkustrap. Aside from the dubious intermingling of British and American accents - which is not justified by the uniformly English references in the lyrics - the only real flaw in this large company is Terrence V. Mann's Rum Tum Tugger, who tries to imitate Mick Jagger's outlaw sexuality and misses by a wide mark.
By virtue of their songs, as well as their talent, there are two other performers who lend ''Cats'' the emotional pull it otherwise lacks. Stephen Hanan, singing Gus the Theater Cat to the show's most lilting melody, is a quivering bundle of nostalgia and dormant hamminess who touchingly springs back to life in an elaborate flashback sequence. (He also contributes a jolly cat about town, Bustopher Jones, earlier on.) To Betty Buckley falls the role of Grizabella the Glamour Cat and the task of singing ''Memory,'' the Puccini-scented ballad whose lyrics were devised by Mr. Nunn from great noncat Eliot poems, notably ''Rhapsody on a Windy Night.'' Not only does Miss Buckley's coursing delivery rattle the rafters, but in her ratty, prostitute-like furs and mane she is a poignant figure of down-and-out catwomanhood.
One wishes that ''Cats'' always had so much feeling to go with its most inventive stagecraft. One wishes, too, that we weren't sporadically jolted from Eliot's otherworldly catland to the vulgar precincts of the videogame arcade by the overdone lightning flashes and by the mezzanine-level television monitors that broadcast the image of the offstage orchestra conductor (the excellent Stanley Lebowsky). But maybe it's asking too much that this ambitious show lift the audience - or, for that matter, the modern musical - up to the sublime heaviside layer. What ''Cats'' does do is take us into a theater overflowing with wondrous spectacle - and that's an enchanting place to be.