Musicals, Reviews, Stage

Cats: Delta Goodrem in a classic that creaks more than purrs (Capitol Theatre, Sydney)

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It’s easy to dismiss Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 blockbuster Cats entirely. His musical retelling of T.S. Eliot’s volume of poetry Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats can often come across as a bit of nonsense, has moments of banality, is never quite as inventive as you seem to remember, and has aged more terribly than Grizabella. 
It’s full of the kind of embarrassing silliness which musical theatre haters will point to when they want to dismiss the entire art form — it’s got a cast of 25 actual fully grown adult humans dressed in leotards, tattered leg warmers and face paint, pretending they’re cats. And, as many people still seem to be shocked to discover, the musical only has the loosest of plots and is more of a revue which allows an audience to meet all different kinds of Jellicle Cats (don’t worry, you’re not supposed to actually work out what a Jellicle Cat is).
It often feels like the producers are taking their audiences for fools by dragging out this same old material.
But there is actually quite a bit which is artistically significant about this show. Cats was the first unstoppable international blockbuster to emerge from the West End in the 1980s — it was quickly followed by Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera — and the original producers, Cameron Mackintosh and the Really Useful Theatre Company, did some extraordinary and innovative work in rolling the musical out around the world.
Cats was embraced so quickly because it was a shameless exercise of imagination, using music, dance, text and design to create an entire, transportive world. That all starts with the score by Lloyd Webber, a man who has never met a musical theme he didn’t like … to repeat ad nauseam. He refined that principle which composers used for the next two decades — if you want the audience to leave the theatre humming the tunes, make sure they’ve heard them enough times to know them. Even though the score gets criticised regularly for being derivative, there’s a sense of drama and purpose infused in each of the compositions, which serve Eliot’s poetry surprisingly well.
Gillian Lynne’s choreography hangs off Lloyd Webber’s score beautifully, with performers leaping feline-like through contemporary and classic balletic and jazz forms. And John Napier’s design was, at the time, a visual extravaganza which audiences had never seen the likes of before. The mammoth set is still an impressive recreation of an oversized junkyard, even if it has lost much of its wow factor over the last three decades.
And that’s why it became the very first musical to have multiple, complete replica productions playing all around the world — the producers wanted audiences everywhere to experience the entire production as they had envisaged it, not just the score and text.
The production which has just opened at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre is based on a recent revival at London’s Palladium Theatre, and has been updated in several ways by the original creative team — Lloyd Webber, Lynne and director Trevor Nunn.
Most notably, the Rum Tum Tugger (played with great vivacity and playfulness by Daniel Assetta) is no longer a late ’70s Jagger-esque rock god, but a rapping cat. It’s not, on paper, a bad reinvention, but Cats is not nearly timeless enough for the creative team to just insert new musical and design elements tied firmly to the mid-2000s (they’re certainly not up to date). It is a little jarring, and the racial politics are iffy at best, and not helped by the fact that Lloyd Webber claimed in interviews leading up to the Palladium production that T.S. Eliot probably invented rap.
And it’s going to take more than just a few minor adjustments to make this show speak to an Australian audience almost 35 years after its premiere.
Lynne’s eclectic and sensual choreography still has some thrilling moments — its gorgeously executed by this Australian cast — and the score still has moments of joy and glory buried deep in the ’80s synthesisers (the orchestra has been notably scaled back). But I’d imagine even most children are now too cynical to be carried away by the former magic of Cats.
This cast brings so much energy and commitment you’d think they’d been in the rehearsal room when it was dreamt up all those years ago. Matt McFarlane is out front as Munkustrap, the pseudo-narrator, welded into his idiosyncratic feline stance, with Jason Wasley delivering the vocal goods as the stoic Old Deuteronomy. Josh Piterman shows his versatility as Bustopher Jones and Asparagus, Christopher Favaloro leaps around the stage with aplomb as Mr Mistoffelees, and Ross Hannaford tenaciously refuses to let his number as Skimbleshanks feel too stale.
Amy Berrisford and Sarah Kate Landy get one of the most thrilling numbers Macavity — which is basically in score and choreography a raunchy reincarnation of Bob Fosse’s Steam Heat number from The Pajama Game — and they belt it out and raunch it up with all the vampish joy you could possibly hope for.
Pop singer-songwriter Delta Goodrem has taken on the role of Grizabella, the glamour cat. She makes a tentative but endearing entrance in the first act as the cat scorned by her community. You get the impression that Goodrem might be channelling her experience with Twitter trolls during the first season of The Voice or just imagining that every other cat is Jessie J.
But her act two showstopper Memory is superb. It’s an excellent vocal fit for Goodrem and the warmth of her vocal tone shines through. She also has excellent musical phrasing and when she finally belts out the climactic “touch me”, it’s a genuinely magical moment.
It’s really the only time when you feel there’s much life left in this show. But when the excitement dies down and she sings the final line, “look, a new day has begun”, you sort of wish it would. Surely it’s time for the sun to set on Cats.

[box]Cats is at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre until November 29, and then tours Australia[/box]

One response to “Cats: Delta Goodrem in a classic that creaks more than purrs (Capitol Theatre, Sydney)

  1. While not quite the international phenomenon that Cats was, surely it wasn’t the first musical to have near identical productions playing all around the world. A Chorus Line, for example, Springs to mind with Bennett’s production by the end of the 70s playing NYC, London, a European tour, a N American tour and Japan (and maybe Australia too–I’m really not sure…) To a lesser extent Evita also did the same.

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