'Cats': Touring production of a 'puzzling' relic returns to Chicago for a short run

  • The female kitties (including Elmhurst native Lexie Plath as Bombalurina), center. sing about the criminal cat "Macavity" in "Cats." The national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tony Award-winning musical continues at the James M. Nederlander Theatre in Chicago to Sunday, Aug. 4.

    The female kitties (including Elmhurst native Lexie Plath as Bombalurina), center. sing about the criminal cat "Macavity" in "Cats." The national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tony Award-winning musical continues at the James M. Nederlander Theatre in Chicago to Sunday, Aug. 4. Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

 
 
Updated 7/22/2019 12:38 PM

"Cats" -- ★ ★ ½

"Cats" is about to have another life thanks to a special effects-filled film adaptation coming this winter. Until then, the Chicago return of this 1981 British musical at the James M. Nederlander Theatre gives local audiences the chance to see "Cats" -- and answer for themselves how Andrew Lloyd Webber turned T.S. Eliot's poems into a global musical phenomenon.

 

There's practically no plot to Lloyd Webber's catchy song settings of Eliot's 1939 poems from "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." In a dance-filled revue, felines boast about their jobs and talents at "The Jellicle Ball." They also jockey to be the one cat chosen annually to go to "The Heaviside Layer," some sort of kitty cat heaven.

Kitties gather to dance at the Jellicle Ball in "Cats" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre in Chicago.
Kitties gather to dance at the Jellicle Ball in "Cats" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre in Chicago. - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

The new national tour is drawn from the 2014 London and 2016 Broadway revivals, which featured additional elements and changes: Tony Award-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz has a field day with new LED technology, while "Hamilton" choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler has put his spin on Gillian Lynne's original choreography of humans mimicking cats. Act II's racially insensitive "Growltiger's Last Stand" sequence has been cut and replaced by the relocated Act I doggy number "The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles."

But otherwise, this tour comes off as the same old "Cats," a nostalgic yet puzzling 1980s relic of British musical theater excess and emptiness.

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Rum Tum Tugger (McGee Maddox) boasts about his indecisiveness in "Cats" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre in Chicago.
Rum Tum Tugger (McGee Maddox) boasts about his indecisiveness in "Cats" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre in Chicago. - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

You get your money's worth in terms of stage spectacle thanks to original designer John Napier's oversize junkyard set and slinky costumes (all those leg warmers!). Many of the specialty dancers also impress, particularly the balletic Tion Gaston as the "Magical Mister Mistoffelees."

Yet there's a lack of urgency among many of the other performers, who seem to be going through the paces under Trevor Nunn's direction. Plus, less-than-crisp diction and delivery diminish the witticisms of Eliot's poetry.

As the shunned and elderly "glamour cat" Grizabella, Keri René Fuller unquestionably has the pipes for the hit song "Memory." But her indicated crotchety physicality feels as manufactured as sound designer Mick Potter's decision to blast up the amplification for the song's climax.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Grizabella, the faded "Glamour Cat," sings "Memory" in the national tour of "Cats" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre in Chicago.
Grizabella, the faded "Glamour Cat," sings "Memory" in the national tour of "Cats" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre in Chicago. - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

No doubt the new film will influence future stage productions of "Cats." But until then, you can revel in the nostalgia of this touring version, which has its paws planted more in the past than the present.

• • •

Location: James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (also Wednesday, July 24 and 31); through Sunday, Aug. 4

Running time: About 2 hours 25 minutes, including intermission

Tickets: $26.50-$146.50

Parking: Area pay garages and limited metered street parking

Rating: For general audiences

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