I’m familiar with CATS. I was in kindergarten in 1998 when the movie version of the play had just gone straight to VHS; it was a hot commodity. We 5-year-olds were all pretty terrified of the actors and clearly had no idea what we were watching. A few years later it made its way to PPAC and you can bet I was there, terrified, with my eyes shut the whole time. The things you learn as a young child stick with you – hey, it’s science – things like addition and English and Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtracks. CATS has stuck with me for the majority of my life. And I hate it. I hate their spandex and that old hag Grizabella, all that hissing and the absence of a plot line.
But I heard Theatre by the Sea was pretty nice, so I dragged along my mother and off we went. As I sat in my seat waiting for the lights to dim I thought to myself, “If these cats crawl down the aisle and get up in my face I’m going to lose it.” Two hours and four cats up in my face later, all I can really say is this is a summer stock production you should probably see.
CATS , based on the TS Eliot poem, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” is pretty much about a bunch of cats that hang out in an alley at the “Jellicle Ball” for one night a year where they proceed to gloat about themselves, hate on the elderly cat and then change their minds and befriend her (or feel bad for her) before sending her up to heaven or the moon or something on a spaceship thing. So there’s essentially no plot at all.
But there’s a reason it’s the longest running play in Broadway history – it’s incredibly entertaining. There is no spoken dialogue in the whole performance. CATS is dance theater. The choreography is such that after watching for a half hour you forget that you’re watching human beings and not cats. At one point, a character came crawling down the aisle sniffing around my chair and I almost pet her head. All of the acting is within the choreography; yes, there are words in the songs and yes, the performers must portray emotion the same way that any actor must, but everything that leads to the illusion that these dancers are actually cats, what makes the play such a hit, comes from the choreography.
Like any dance style and number, each dancer has his or her own talents and signature moves that get the crowd “Ooh”ing. There will always be the principal dancer who can silence a room with his straight-leg fouettes (always a big finish in Magical Mister Mistoffelees). But it’s the group numbers, meticulously choreographed to the point where 17 dancers don’t even take breaths on the wrong counts that are particularly impressive. There wasn’t a single point in the performance when a cat wasn’t pulling off some impressive dance move and in turn, distracting from the ridiculous non-plot. With Richard Stafford on board as choreographer and director after serving as dance supervisor over Broadway’s production of CATS, you can expect the same level of quality at Theatre by the Sea.
Simply being at Theatre by the Sea is an event within itself. The theater exits let out to what could easily be mistaken for The Secret Garden. As the focal point of a grassy courtyard, a gazebo served as a makeshift bar. When the show ended, the sun had set completely and lampposts and string lights dimly, but pleasantly, lit the area. At the far end, a pathway surrounded by greenery and flowered vines on three sides summons visitors’ curiosity. Walking through, couples sat on benches while showtunes quietly played out of the overhead speakers. At the end of the tunnel is the entrance to the Bistro by the Sea.
Whether you’re new to the show, have happy memories of seeing it in the past, or cling to horrible childhood nightmares it created, CATS is worth another viewing. Just don’t pet the actors.
CATS is playing at Theatre by the Sea on 364 Cards Pond Road, Matnuck, RI, through July 13. For ticket information, call 401-782-8587 or visit TheatreByTheSea.biz.