During the intermission of the Manila production of Cats, I overheard a couple arguing about the plot of the show. They had to check their souvenir programme a couple of times and read the synopsis just to see if they are missing anything. Such confusion is not new, especially for neophytes. Cats is often referred to as the show with no clear plot because it is made up of two hours’ worth of dancing men guised as domestic felines, with scenes that appear to have nothing to do with one another. Despite the largely shared perplexity over its story, the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic managed to take a significant spot in the history of musical theatre across the globe. Cats ushered in the dawn of an age known as the ‘British invasion’, a certain period in theatre history where almost all of the top-grossing shows on Broadway (e.g. Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon) were produced by British creatives. The show also received accolades from various prestigious bodies, including the Olivier Award for Best New Musical, Tony Award for Best Musical, and Grammy Award for Best Cast Show Album. After learning about the show’s long list of achievements, my interest to see it live has become fuelled by great intrigue. When I left The Theatre at Solaire after watching the cult classic, everything suddenly made sense. Cats has a special charm only those who watched it live will understand.
I think the first step to comprehend the nature of Cats is knowing its inspiration. The story is based upon a collection of poems by British author TS Eliot. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats contains whimsical poetry about the life and mysterious behaviour of his favourite domestic pet. According to director Trevor Nunn, they also incorporated some unpublished poems of Eliot into the lyrics of the songs. For instance, the story of Grizabella the Glamour Cat was not in the original volume of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats because the poet deemed it too sad for children.
In this regard, the confusion of the couple sitting in front of me during the show is justified, for if the inspiration is poetry there is no definite formula to fully understand the subject. And the best way I can describe the musical is by billing it as a montage of poems interpreted through spectacular dance numbers and highly sentimental songs. The poetic language of the show was abstract, and yet it was able to deliver a message that anyone who experienced the bliss and cruelty of life can relate to. I guess the key is not to look at the narrative as a massive two-hour chunk of nonsensical dancing, but to appreciate the individuality of every Jellicle Cat piece by piece and listen to what each of them has to say.
A Unique Memory for Manila
The lack of a linear plot is not the only interesting quality of the show. It also creatively bends the conventional boundaries of genres, which is why I like to call it the Bohemian Rhapsody of musical theatre. Cats is a rock opera, ballet, chorale cantata, and jazz concert all together in one show and performed by an impressive ensemble of groovy felines. Every minute detail of the show contributes to the whole purpose of spectacle, making Cats very much deserving of its label as a mega musical. Great music is coupled by groundbreaking stage hydraulics that turned the London junkyard into a wonderland, fitting to be the venue of the great Jellicle Ball. I find it necessary to mention lighting designer Howard Eaton in this review for making such an excellent job. The movement of lights sent me to goosebumps right from the overture up to The Addressing of Cats, and the spectacle it rendered is the reason why I was crying even before the first song of the show.
Cats has been around for more than three decades and is considered as one of the longest-running shows both on London’s West End and Broadway. To keep the tale of the Jellicle Cats as fresh as it was when it premiered at the New London Theatre (now the Gillian Lynne Theatre) in 1981 is never an easy task. One great technique used by impresarios to make the show a champion of both commerce and the arts is to offer a unique experience in every country they visit. This means some elements of the show are modified according to the taste and culture of a specific audience. It is likely that the show I witnessed at Solaire is somehow different from the one being performed in Austria and Switzerland.
Since the second language of the Philippines is English anyway, it is unnecessary to produce a Tagalog translation of Cats. But it is always a delight to see a touring production with some clever Filipino touch. When Jemima (Holly Willock) sang the first few lines of ‘Moonlight’ in Filipino, the crowd went wild. It was indeed an incredible experience to witness a Jellicle Cat sing a Tagalog song in a London junkyard. What a multicultural celebration it was! According to the official YouTube channel of Cats, the verse was translated by award-winning poet Pete Lacaba.
Audience involvement is also a crucial part of the Cats experience. The Manila production made sure that everyone in the auditorium will feel they were part of the show by breaking the fourth wall multiple times. The performance of Gus: The Theatre Cat (Andrew Keelan) is a prime example of this, where he would face the audience to interact with them and discreetly solicit applause (Gus is surely used to attention, being the seasoned performer that he is). Keelan was an absolute darling of the crowd for giving a funny and adorable interpretation of the character.
I should also give a great tip to those who are reading this and planning to see the show: if your bladder is strong enough to stand a two-hour-and-twenty-minute performance without using the loo, you would do well to just stay in the auditorium during the intermission. Old Deuteronomy (Nicholas Pound) stays on stage to pose some photos with audience members from the orchestra section. Cassandra (Danielle Cato) also loiters around to entertain guests. Those sitting at the balcony section (I was at the balcony centre) need not worry as they will also receive a visit from the mischievous duo, Mungojerrie (Joe Henry) and Rumpelteazer (Kirsty Ingram).
Rock Star Jellicles
I am immensely impressed by the talent of every single person from Cats’ company of 22 because they all made singing while dancing looked easy. In a backstage tour with the press, the touring company’s stage manager Jordan Goff said the stage for Cats is raked in order to give the audience a great perspective regardless of where they are inside the theatre. I cannot imagine how difficult it is to do the incredible dance numbers of the show on an inclined stage. Cats is undeniably perfect on the surface, but when one digs dipper into its core, it just keeps on impressing.
While all of the cast members were absolutely outstanding, there were some who really left the audience wanting for more. Everyone from this touring production has my respect but I cannot talk about the performance of every single one of them. I have to make it clear that those who will receive a special mention in this review are the ones who are lucky enough to play a role with stunning nature and exposure. Thus, those who will not get to be mentioned are not necessarily less impressive. They simply did not have the privilege to play a strong role, but they are all great as actors nevertheless.
Rum Tum Tugger (George Hinson) is one extremely remarkable cat because of his rock star moves and phenomenal voice. Hinson has the perfect amount of talent needed to play a sexy role like the Tugger. He dances and sings as if he was the only one on stage performing in his very own concert. Hinson’s portrayal of the Curious Cat is so amazing he will make you root for him at the first encounter. His tandem with Mr Mistoffelees (Harry Francis) was at par with a grand final performance on any reality talent show. I never thought the combination of a rock star and a magician can be so effective and fun. Even though Francis did not sing any line, his entire dance number was a feast for the eyes. He showered the audience with colourful stunts and endless twirls, which only resulted in wild cheering. As the Original Conjuring Cat, Francis cemented a reputation as an excellent acrobat and I can watch him over and over again. I am also obsessed with the encore performance of Hinson and Francis after the curtain call!
As a Filipino theatre aficionado, it was a huge pleasure to be represented on stage by Ms Joanna Ampil as Grizabella the Glamour Cat. Grizabella’s story reminds me so much of Cinderella and I think it was not an accident that their names rhyme. Like the classic fairy tale, Grizabella was deprived of the chance to attend a ball because of her unfortunate circumstances in life. Ampil’s powerful musicality gave a new identity to the legendary song ‘Memory’. I am not an expert in the technical aspect of music, but I know that her version of the song is different from anything I have watched online. Grizabella has a very limited exposure throughout the show, making it imperative for anyone who would play the role to make every appearance as remarkable as possible. Ampil did just that. With the level of drama she brought on stage, she justified why Grizabella deserved to take the journey to Heaviside Layer. Ampil is indeed a brilliant and world-class Filipina actress. And if you think her voice is exceptional, wait till you see her moves.
Before her iconic ascent ‘up past the Russell Hotel’, Grizabella left an important message that will be remembered now and forever. Most of the time, it was not a question of whether one is deserving to get a second chance or not. Life is more about when will someone be ready for that second chance. After the pageantry of gift and legacy, it was clear every Jellicle Cat deserves to be reborn and have a new Jellicle life. But Grizabella stood out because she showed, more than anything, her preparedness to accept the gift of a second chance. Despite her cruel experiences, she recalls all her memories always with a hope for a ‘new day’. This triumph of the soul is the reason why Cats the musical exceeded its ‘nine lives’ and will continue to dazzle people across the globe for more years to come.