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Theatre in Review: Cats: "The Jellicle Ball" (Perelman Performing Arts Center)

Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

There's an outbreak of mass hysteria happening at PAC NYC these nights and it involves the oddest pairing of sensibilities in many a moon. As promised, co-directors Zhailon Levingston and Bill Rauch have crossed Andrew Lloyd Webber's now-and-forever musical hit with the ballroom culture enshrined in the documentary Paris is Burning and TV series Pose. (Thus, the altered title: This isn't the Cats of your childhood, with its nightmarish costumes and environmental junkyard setting.) At first glance, the idea of shellacking this fey, singularly British entertainment with a layer of uptown LGBTQ glitter feels bizarre. But don't tell that to the youngish audience roaring its approval with the fervor of a gospel church congregation. This is Cats: "The Jellicle Ball" and the attendees are ready to party.

Even to a bemused, perpetually Cats-challenged observer like me, Levingston and Rauch's concept isn't as odd as it initially appears. Long before it was enshrined as Broadway's most notorious tourist trap, a punchline in John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation and elsewhere, Cats was widely considered an avant-garde project. Before its 1981 debut, the concept of a virtually plotless spectacle taken from a volume of minor T. S. Eliot poems hardly looked like a surefire smash, even for a composer who had previously spun gold from musicals built around Eva Perón and Jesus Christ. Then came the twenty-year runs in London and New York, the tranches of Tony and Drama Desk Awards, endless tours, and sit-down productions in Hamburg, Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto, and elsewhere. (We will draw a veil over the film; everyone involved has.)

And, really, there is a rationale in transposing the show to the pageant world: Cats unfolds in the context of the "Jellicle Ball," which includes a competition of sorts, so there is a certain situational overlap -- although, in a typical ballroom contest, the winner gets a trophy, while in Cats, the victor gets admitted to the Heavyside Layer, a kind of feline astral plane. Still, this is just another example of director's theatre, in which a concept is layered onto an existing work in search of newfound relevance, an approach that sometimes works and sometimes leaves one baffled.

Following a scattershot opening and a series of low-impact turns, the show gets a jolt late in the first act with André De Shields' spectacular entrance as Old Deuteronomy, the community's reigning elder and judge for the evening. Towering, aristocratic, outfitted with a spectacular leonine wig that resembles a gray waterfall erupting from his head), De Shields adds a much-needed touch of gravitas to these giddy proceedings. (His cut-glass diction should inspire his fellow cast members, some of whom could use a few enunciation lessons.) Next comes "Song of the Jellicles and the Jellicle Ball," the liveliest group number -- although, to be fair, its excitement and energy are driven less by the choreography and more by the restless ballyhoos and bold color choices of Adam Honoré's lighting. (It's his most dynamic work to date.) Then, just before intermission, we meet the heartbreaking Grizabella of "Tempress" Chasity Moore. Conceived as a down-and-out housemother, wrapped in a fur coat with a bad case of the mange, her effectively broken spirit is expressed in a feeble attempt at imitating the voguing routine featured in the previous number. (She also gets to flex her remarkably rangy voice with the evening's first pass at "Memory.")

It all comes together -- at least for a moment -- at the top of Act II, when projection designer Brittany Bland unrolls a gorgeous, evocative montage of ballroom scenes decades past, paying tribute to such founding mothers of the pageant scene as Crystal LaBeija, Paris Dupree, and Dorian Corey. (The sequence plays out to the pleasantly melancholy tune "Moments of Happiness.") Next comes the number "Gus: The Theatre Cat," in which a grizzled veteran recalls his stage career. In the production's biggest casting coup, he is played by Junior LaBeija, a surviving member of the House of LaBeija, one of the foundational institutions in New York's ballroom world. Accompanied by the vocally gifted Shereen Pimentel, LaBeija is a regal, melancholy presence, gazing back at vanished glories with the authority of one who was there.

The sequence injects a bracing note of authenticity that puts into relief the production's split personality. Even here, we are told that Gus, presented as a denizen of New York nightlife, "has acted with Irving, he has acted with Tree." The lyrics also allude to the British panto tradition and the reign of Queen Victoria, all of which may leave you feeling a tad disoriented. Are we in London? Harlem? Both? Neither? Of course, if you start picking at things like that, you won't have a good time at Cats: "The Jellicle Ball".

Clearly, the audience has shown up to celebrate the tremendous creativity and endurance of an often-marginalized community; in that sense, this may be the canniest-ever Pride Month booking. And there is plenty of fun in Qween Jean's wittily outrageous costumes, which work multiple variations on the theme of tiger stripes and Pride colors. (Hair and wig designer Nikiya Mathis follows suit, creating brilliantly patterned looks not found in nature.) Then again, if you're yearning to hear Eliot's lyrics (theatricalized with an assist from Trevor Nunn), you may be out of luck; this, I think, has less to do with Kai Harada's sound design than the actors' highly variable diction. It's also disappointing that, given the show's parade of flamboyant personalities, co-choreographers Arturo Lyons and Omari Wiles rely on a limited movement vocabulary consisting mostly of sashaying, posing, and the occasional leg lift. (The narrow stage of Rachel Hauck's set design may limit the dance options.) The production often coasts on easy, applause-inducing gestures -- catwalk prowls, sartorial splendor, and the odd moment when a well-muscled specimen strips down to his jockstrap. (It's amusing to think of Eliot, one of the twentieth century's leading prudes, executing 78rpm spins in his grave at being associated with so much queer fabulosity.) Ultimately, there's no getting around the fact that, for all its flash aspects, Cats: "The Jellicle Ball" is still...Cats, a series of vaudeville turns -- some of them alarmingly twee -- linked to the thinnest of premises. Decades after its global success, its appeal remains mysterious.

Among the performers not previously mentioned, Sydney James Harcourt is a sexy and superbly danced Rum Tum Tugger (although he has audibility issues when not using a hand mic); Dudney Joseph Jr. is an authoritative Munkustrap, the master of ceremonies; and Bebe Nicole Simpson and Garnet Williams share a Bond Girl flair as the swanky companions of master thief Macavity, the Mystery Cat (an imposing Antwayn Hopper.

To be sure, Moore's Grizabella returns for a full-out eleven o'clock rendition of "Memory" that satisfyingly brings down the house. And Hauck has devised a suitably theatrical exit, taking her to feline nirvana and cueing the feel-good finale. I saw plenty of happy patrons leaving PAC NYC -- at the intermission, a woman kept chanting, "It's so good! It's so good!" -- but whether this is a strictly niche entertainment for the LGBTQ community or a breakout hit remains unanswered. Look at it this way: If you're a dyed-in-the-fur Cats fan, steel yourself. If you're not a Cats person, it probably isn't different enough. But if you're dying to cheer on the citizens of the catwalk, come on down. --David Barbour

(21 June 2024)

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