Casa Mañana’s production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wildly (and improbably) popular musical Cats, which opened Saturday, is sure to leave fans of the show with an internal purr they may carry around for days.
This highly polished and gorgeously staged presentation, directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford, bares its claws and swishes its tail proudly, thanks to a superb cast comprising a mix of local and out-of-town talent.
This show is one of the brighter jewels in Lloyd Webber’s musical-theater crown. Only his Phantom of the Opera (which is still running) has had more productions on Broadway. It is based on rather lofty material for a musical, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats — a collection of feline poems by T.S. Eliot.
There is not really a plot, except for the mild mystery of which cat will be chosen for a reincarnation ceremony that takes place at the special time and place that provides the frame for the show. We meet most of the cats and learn something about their personalities, the cat receiving the make-over is revealed (she has to sing Memory by way of thanks), and then everybody goes home vowing to figure out ways to make Lloyd Webber even richer than he already is.
So it is not the plot that has drawn audiences to this show in swarming hoards since it opened on Broadway in 1982. Instead, it is the music, costuming and movement that enrapture the throngs who have made this show a legend.
What fans of Cats will especially appreciate about this production is Stafford’s attention to detail. He has been involved with this show as a performer and director for most of his career, on Broadway, on national tours and around the world. Based on his résumé, it would be hard to imagine anyone who knows this show better, and everything about this production reflects that background. While there is no shortage of outstanding individual efforts, the best moments are the big production numbers where we can see and hear how well Stafford has this cast singing and moving as one.
Many in the cast distinguish themselves while working solo or in duets. Linda Leonard, long one of the most dependable performers in our area, makes the absolute most of the three cats she plays and provides the best acting in the show. Jeri Sager, as Grizabella, nails her big aria, Memory (which is about all this show asks of her character).
Maurice Johnson is an imposing presence who brings a richly soulful voice to Old Deuteronomy, the presiding cat in this particular alley. Veteran visiting player Steve Watkins provides exceptional vocals for the two older cats he plays. Andrew Wilson takes your breath away with the incredible leaping, spinning physicality he brings to Mistoffelees.
Their efforts are well supported by a spirited crew in the pit, led by music director James Cunningham.
The show’s outward appearance is also first-rate, thanks to the costumes by Tammy Spencer and the hair and makeup by Catherine Petty-Rogers. And don’t be concerned that the costumes for this show are so unforgiving. This lean and lithesome cast has no apologies to make.
Ironically, about the only thing that some Cats lovers may find a bit off-putting about this production is that it is so true to the show’s past that it is overly pat. Indeed, the vocals of the men especially sometimes sound so “Broadway Approved” as to be almost generic.
But most others would find these potential flaws to be strengths. Because perhaps the strongest point made by this production is that, now that this show has moved from the huge venues used for touring productions to cozier spaces like Casa’s, it can now be enjoyed with greater intimacy than ever before — especially when the cast and crew are as strong as they are in this case.