Paramount's 'Cats' practically purr-fect

  • Cast members of "Cats" raise their voices for "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats" at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. "Cats" runs now through Sunday, Oct. 12.

    Cast members of "Cats" raise their voices for "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats" at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. "Cats" runs now through Sunday, Oct. 12. Courtesy of Liz Lauren/Paramount Theatre

  • Bombalurina (Amber Mak) and Demeter (Kristen Noonan) sing about "Macavity: The Mystery Cat" in "Cats" at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

    Bombalurina (Amber Mak) and Demeter (Kristen Noonan) sing about "Macavity: The Mystery Cat" in "Cats" at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Courtesy of Liz Lauren/Paramount Theatre

  • Laura Savage and Jonny Stein star as thieving calicoes Rumpleteazer and Mungojerrie in "Cats" at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

    Laura Savage and Jonny Stein star as thieving calicoes Rumpleteazer and Mungojerrie in "Cats" at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Courtesy of Liz Lauren/Paramount Theatre

  • Munkustrap (Rhett Guter, center) narrates the doggy tale of "The Awful Battle of the Pekes and Pollicles" featuring Laura Savage, left, and Jonny Stein in "Cats" at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

    Munkustrap (Rhett Guter, center) narrates the doggy tale of "The Awful Battle of the Pekes and Pollicles" featuring Laura Savage, left, and Jonny Stein in "Cats" at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Courtesy of Liz Lauren/Paramount Theatre

 
 
Updated 9/17/2014 3:21 PM

Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1981 international hit musical "Cats" ran for 21 years in London and lasted 7,485 performances in New York, where it holds the distinction of being Broadway's second-longest running show after "The Phantom of the Opera."

Some detractors, however, chalked the musical's successes up to a never-ending supply of international kitty-loving tourists. Understanding English wasn't necessary to enjoy "Cats:" The performers could have just repeatedly sung, "Meow, meow, meow" and the show still would have been entertaining thanks to its family-friendly blend of theatrical spectacle, acrobatic dancing and Lloyd Webber's catchy pastiche score.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

So anyone with tickets to the Paramount Theatre's new production of "Cats" in Aurora can be forgiven for questioning whether the cast and crew could create enough stage magic and dynamic dancing to bolster the musical's paper-thin plot.

The answer is a stunning yes. Both newcomers and longtime fans of "Cats" should be impressed by all the clever theatrical tricks employed by the Paramount to tame the many challenges of staging this famous feline musical.

"Cats" director/music director Shawn Stengel and choreographer Harrison McEldowney smartly don't shy away from the British wordiness of the musical's source material, which is drawn almost entirely from T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," a persnickety 1939 collection of poems about oddly named kitties. "Cats" as a musical is essentially a dance revue where a series of British felines introduce their talents and traits at the annual "Jellicle Ball," where one lucky cat will be chosen to be reborn in "The Heavyside Layer" -- some kind of kitty heaven.

Rather than opting for the musical's traditional setting of an oversize junkyard festooned with corporate logos like the original production, Paramount's "Cats" is set on what looks like the banks of London's River Thames. Despite Kevin Depinet's seemingly unglamorous set design, complete with grimy drains and concrete tunnels, the atmospheric locale is constantly awash in flashy color and spectral grandeur thanks to the high-tech lighting designs of Jesse Klug and subtle backdrop projection designs of Michael Stanfill.

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There's even more showbiz flash in the feline bodysuits by costume designer Theresa Ham, who is very free in her use of sequins and iridescent fabrics to glam up the entertaining triple-threat cast members who act, sing and dance up a storm.

Nearly every performer gets a moment to shine, and the audience can pick and choose favorite sequences and performers ranging from the hip-swiveling insouciance of Sawyer Smith's contrarian rock-star kitty Rum Tum Tugger to Jacqui Graziano as Jennyanydots, the deceptively lazy "Old Gumbie Cat," who is actually an industrious busybody at night who can also glam up to headline a major tap dance number.

If you're looking for great acting chops, George Keating stands out by convincingly creating a series of characters ranging from the pompously posh and overweight Bustopher Jones to the elderly theater cat Asparagus, who touchingly reflects on his past glory days. Keating also shines in the mock-Puccini opera sequence where his Growltiger is betrayed to his cat enemies by Holly Stauder's comical glamourpuss Griddlebone.

For great character dancing, look to Jonny Stein and Laura Savage, who both wow with their double-act acrobatics as the petty-criminal calicoes Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, while Terrance Martin brings a funky Michael Jackson-esque flash to the heroic magician cat known as "The Magical Mr. Mistoffelees."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

As for vocals, Andy Planck delivers a booming operatic sound as Old Deuteronomy while Kristen Noonan as Grizabella, the ostracized former "Glamour Cat," hits it out of the park with powerful pop vocals for the big hit song "Memory."

Though McEldowney's choreography largely dazzles throughout Paramount's "Cats," some of his specialty effects don't live up to the anticipation once they're introduced. Lizzie MacKenzie Pontarelli as the all-white cat Victoria is graceful executing her contorting silks choreography, though audiences spoiled by Cirque du Soleil will want more. The same could be said of the Flying-by-Foy bungee cord bouncing sequence during "The Jellicle Ball."

But on the whole, the Paramount Theatre's "Cats" is a stunner that shows how savvy theatrics and choreography can conquer a simple storyline. And though "Cats" has proved itself internationally, the folks at Paramount are smart to return the show to its roots and celebrate its innate and odd Britishness.

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