Coastal Carolina University, eight miles from poshy-poshy Myrtle Beach, does not come up often in conversation. Two damsels from CCU, recent graduate Emily Brockway and faculty member Barbara Hartwig, have brought their gifts north, a cause for celebration. They make all the difference in the current production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, now playing at Cortland Repertory Theater.
Brockway made a big splash here two years ago as a porcelain-skinned, flame-haired Fiona in Brigadoon. She’s almost unrecognizable visually under a gray wig and ashen fright makeup as Grisabella, but when she releases her great Wurlitzer of a soprano in “Memory,” we know it’s her. Director-choreographer Barbara Hartwig, a former dancer with a golden resume, knows just what Cats is about: It’s not just a dance musical but a ballet with lyrics.
A fixture on Broadway and London’s West End for more than two decades, Cats is a show everyone purports to know but hasn’t seen recently. The 1998 video version never won wide release, and the last local floorboards run was director Dan Tursi’s Syracuse Civic Theatre staging in February 2006. As a prime specimen of the megamusical, Cats in America meant filling New York City’s cavernous Winter Garden Theater with high-priced production values.
What Cortland Repertory and director Hartwig show us is that inside that swollen extravaganza lies a sinewy, intimate show struggling to break out. You might call it “feline.” Even so, this looks like the most richly produced show in CRT’s history, with music director Joel Gelpe leading nine players to deliver the orchestral score, and first-class costumes and wigs from Maine State Music Theatre, coordinated by Jimmy Johansmeyer. If might be a smaller Cats, but you’re not missing anything.
A family show based on the rare light verse of Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot, Cats has long been understood to operate on three levels. According to an agreement with the Eliot estate, it has no spoken words and appears to be nearly plotless. How each cat moves defines who he or she is. We instantly recognize that like so many Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, Cats is filled with parodies of musical forms. Rum Tum Tugger (Ryan Shaefer) is riffing Mick Jagger, and Mungojerrie (Conor DeVoe) with Rumpleteazer (Maria Cristina Slye) are reviving vaudeville. This is also a show about show business, especially in the song of old Gus (Kim Hubbard), about all the roles he has played, every cat part in a company’s repertory. The back alley set, by scenic designer Jason Bolen, lies behind an abandoned theater.
At another level the libretto is an expression of Eliot’s high Anglicanism. Not that many will care, but Cats is a distant parallel of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, another popular entertainment from a religious highbrow. Writer Trevor Nunn took passages from other Eliot poetry to construct the redemption of the fallen Grisabella, who makes the ascension to the Heavyside Layer (heaven?) guided by the sleepy vicarage cat, Old Deuteronomy. Does anyone think it’s a coincidence that this priest-like cat is named for a key book in the Old Testament?
The third layer, of course, is the joyous, ebullient surface. If you turn your mind off and forget about subtext and subtle allusions, there’s abundant energy to carry you along, right from the opening numbers, “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” and “The Naming of Cats.” The meaning of “Jellicle” is never explained, but it scans well in lyrics. We figure out easily that it names the tribe of cats inhabiting the alley of the set. Thus, all the cats, no matter what breed or color, are symbolically related. The whitest of cats, Victoria (Avery Epstein), signals the invitation to the Jellicle Ball, whose anticipation is a pretense for suspense.
British choreographer Gillian Lynne put together the original show in 1981, in which each dancer follows unique steps, quite startling for the time. What Hartwig has done at Cortland Rep is to retain all the individuality of each character in newer, more intimate dimensions. Some of these are visual treats, regardless of what they mean or how they advance the action. So it is with Bustopher Jones (Richard Wagoner), a spoof of an English club man and possibly of poet Eliot himself. With excellent makeup and skilled body set, Wagoner is less than recognizable when he returns shortly after as Old Deuteronomy. So it is with Shimbleshanks the Railway Cat (Matthew Couvillon), or the disappearing tricks of master criminal Macavity (Jamie Wells), the Houdini of cats.
The showstopper among the dancers, Parker Slaybaugh goes under two character names, first as Quaxo, the all-black tom who’s also the shortest of the males. With a slight costume change, he becomes the fabled magician Mr. Mistoffles, who must restore the lights disabled by Macavity. Before he can deliver his magic, Mistoffles, on a cleared stage, performs the longest, most rigorous solo, intended to dazzle an audience possibly jaded by this point. Slaybaugh, who always cuts a distinctive presence, was previously seen as super-nerd Eugene in CRT’s recent production of Grease, as the first Eugene ever to walk like Fred Astaire.
Despite the heavy makeup and thick costumes, we begin to pick out performers beneath the characterization. Rin Allen as Bombalurina, a favorite since playing Velma in last summer’s Chicago and Rizzo in last month’s Grease, is heard in tandem with redhaired Demeter (Abigail Gatlin) in Grisabella’s introduction and “Macavity: The Mystery Cat.” One of the loveliest voices in the company comes from Amanda Lee Myers as Jellyorum, especially in the duet, “Gus: The Theatre Cat.”
If there is one performer we’re supposed to know under his costume, it would be Kim Hubbard as Gus. There’s a tradition behind this. In the original London production in 1981 the role of Gus was taken by Sir John Mills, one of the best-known figures from British stage and film, but not known as a singer. Hubbard is probably half Mills’ age at that time, but in Cortland he’s a legend. A locally based Equity player, he has extensive national credits and played murderer Chester Gillette in Cortland Rep’s 1991 landmark premiere of Chester and Grace, the “American Tragedy” story that took place, in part, in Cortland. Hubbard is not only perfectly cast, but he wrings the maximum pathos from it.
Musical theater buffs are always divided about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, but the fans surely win out with Cats. More than half the numbers linger in the mind for days, none more than “Memory,” one of the great show tunes of the last 40 years. With each iteration of this number, in both the first and second acts, the ladies from Coastal Carolina University, director Barbara Hartwig and soprano Emily Brockway, deliver the goods. And they are fabulous. t
This production runs through July 28.
See Times Table for information.