Fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats” can be assured that N.C. Theatre’s production effectively competes with the show’s previous touring companies and even the New York production. This first locally produced professional staging reconfirms N.C. Theatre’s status as the Southern tip of Broadway.
Based on T. S. Eliot’s poems for children, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the musical is a whimsical look at the lives of felines and their fates. It takes place in a junkyard where the cat king, Old Deuteronomy, is to decide which cat should be sent to the next world. The occasion is the Jellicle Ball, where members of the cat tribe tell their stories before the choice is made.
Director Richard Stafford demands unending energy and first-rate singing and dancing from his cast, which he gets in awesome abundance. All 20 performers have fine moments, some particularly engaging. Jonathan Stahl bounces about nimbly as Skimbleshanks, the train station cat; Will Porter’s Mungojerrie and Amanda LaMotte’s Rumpleteazer make appealing burglars; Kinsland Howell (Demeter) and Lauren Sprague (Bombalurina) strut sexily as they purr out evil Macavity’s tale. Ian Parmenter’s master of ceremonies, Munkustrap, and Thay Floyd’s rock-star, Rum Tum Tugger, fill the stage with personality.
Jennifer Shrader’s Grizabella firmly belts out “Memory,” the show’s hit tune, and Ken Prymus uses seven years’ experience as Broadway’s Old Deuteronomy to make the part lovable here. Dirk Lumbard’s Asparagus, the old theatrical cat, is a model of characterization, enunciation and timing, a show highlight.
The densely cluttered set (from Fullerton Civic Light Opera) and the cleverly designed costumes (rented from three different companies) are further enhanced by Patricia DelSordo’s striking makeup and John Bartenstein’s ever-surprising lighting.
Edward Robinson’s orchestra switches from musical hall ditties to sweeping anthems with impressive ease.
First-timers should know that “Cats” has virtually no plot, being more a series of specialty numbers, like a variety show. They also should familiarize themselves with the Eliot poems beforehand, or the literary and British-based references will make the lyrics frustratingly unintelligible.
Some numbers go on beyond sustainable interest and Lloyd Webber often turns Eliot’s wry, subtle verses into bombast and pretension.
But “Cats” is still a visual, toe-tapping feast that can be enjoyed by the whole family.