Ah, the mystical divinity of unashamed felinity. It’s out in full force at the Marriott Lincolnshire, where the elaborately anthropomorphized kitties of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” are leaping, pouncing and prancing through a categorically charming showcase of dazzling choreography, soaring vocals and emotionally satisfying storytelling.
It’s easy to mock a show about singing cats, and to be sure, “Cats” has become something of a punchline since it debuted in 1981, reviled for its alleged lack of a plot, dialogue that basically consists of variations on “meow,” and an 11th-hour anthem that’s basically been karaoked to death. But in director Marc Robin’s vision, “Cats” is no joke. It’s a visually stunning tale of redemption and a bittersweet meditation on loss and aging. As for the money number, “Memory,” leading lady Heidi Kettenring makes it both a true heartbreaker and a glorious ode to joy. Robin is a gifted choreographer, and that gift is out in full force as the 26-person cast morphs through everything from sinuously gorgeous ballets to rapid fire tap numbers to acrobatic showstoppers.
The plot centers on a tribe of Jellicle cats — who playfully explain precisely what a Jellicle cat is in the opening number. They’ve gathered to determine who among them will gain the blessing of their shaman-like elder statesman (statescat if you will), Old Deuteronomy (Matthew R. Jones, whose stentorian pipes bring to mind a grand church organ). The chosen one will be reborn and granted another life.
As the tribe prowls and prances, individual cats take the spotlight and create kinetic, marvelously idiosyncratic portraits of the human condition in its varied forms. Among them is the quicksilver conjurer Mistoffelees (Sagiya Eugene Peabody, a dancer of explosively athletic power and grace) ; the swaggering ladies’ man Rum Tum Tugger (Jake Klinkhammer, serving Vegas-era Elvis); the convivial, roly-poly Jennyanydots (Tammy Mader, a superb hoofer, even with paws); the old theater cat Gus (George Andrew Wolff, who knows how to deliver an aria); the dangerous shape-shifter Macavity (Sam Rogers, electric with hissing menace) and the impossibly supple Victoria (Ellen Green, who balletic grace has a dream-like elegance). Then there’s the outcast Grizabella (Kettenring), once a glamorous, now tattered and lame.
Through a roster of 20 songs, the disparate personalities become intensely vivid while the plight of Grizabella ever more poignant. Aging, increasing irrelevance and invisibility go hand in hand all too often among humans; anyone who has ever mourned the loss of youth and its effortless beauty will surely feel a pang at Kettenring yearning performance.
“Cats” plays out on set designer Thomas M. Ryan’s somewhat eerie version of an abandoned town, the most immersive environment Marriott audiences have seen in over 20 years.
From start to finish, “Cats” is an compelling, fast-paced exploration of the human condition. Bravo dancing cats, bravo.