Hot on the heels of three musical successes—”Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Evita”—and just before he became a mega-corporation and settled into writing nothing but imitation Puccini operetta/spectacles, Andrew Lloyd Webber made two career-altering decisions.
First, he jettisoned (only temporarily, alas) Tim Rice and his sappy lyrics; and second, he picked T.S. Eliot for his new, one-shot lyricist. The result was “Cats” a sung-through, danced-through stick of theatrical dynamite that managed to fill the cavernous Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway for a record smashing 18 years.
The reason for its tenacious tenancy is made amply and joyously clear in the Gateway Playhouse socko, blockbuster production at the Patchogue Theater. The 54-seasons-old local Equity musical producers have hit the bull’s-eye over and over in this memorable mounting of Webber’s musicalization of T.S. Eliot’s poetic observations on the lives of cats.
In Patchogue, there’s a current, perfect mating of all the elements that make a musical what it should be, but rarely is: A varied and exciting score that contains rock, jazz, a Gilbert and Sullivan sendup, a delicious satire of Puccini and a trademark lush anthem; lyrics that are constantly ingenious; musical direction by Jeffrey Buchsbaum of the largest pit orchestra yet for a Gateway production that is at all times powerful, and frequently inspired; and direction and choreography by D. J. Salisbury that fills the stage—and at times the theater—with sinuous, supercharged motion and delight that, while respecting Gillian Lynne’s original choreography, adds to it and invents wild wonders that are purely and brightly original. Not since the season of Robert Longbottom and his staging of the 1990 “A Chorus Line” has there been finer dancing on a Gateway stage, performed, once again, by a cast for the memory books.
Merge this with a wackily wonderful set design of shadowy buildings and oversized alley junk that spills out into the theater itself—not as absolutely as in the original, in a thoroughly renovated Winter Garden Theatre, but this, after all, is Patchogue and this is summer theater with its repertory demands.
Nevertheless, set designer Kelly Tighe has captured the spirit of the original handily, and every technical resource of the Patchogue Theatre is put to use: flying wires that shoot cats into the high reaches of the stage, a turntable, smoke, black light—and all of it bathed in a constantly changing palette of striking, rhythmically restless lights, handsomely designed by Doug Harry. Add knockout costumes by Marilynn Wick, and the emergence is a theatrical experience not to be missed by anyone from 9 to 90.
All of this would of course be for naught were it not for a cast that can deliver the goods, with the fever and fervor and frequent mood changes that “Cats” demands and which ensnare the most restless little child and most supercilious grownup. Casting director Robin Allen has done her best work since the never-to-be-diminished “Chorus Line” and the first production of the Maury Yeston “Phantom.” It’s a big cast—22 strong, and I do mean strong—of singer/dancers who are so supremely right and thrilling, you wonder who else could have performed this show, ever.
All shine in their own ways, and the ensemble is constantly in motion and constantly transfixing, from the opening moments of the opening number, “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” which erupts from clever exposition into explosive energy, to the last stirring final moments.
Some of its members bear special mention, nevertheless: Lead singer/ dancer Kevin Duda is a constantly and warmly intense presence. Gavin Esham is an on-target, pelvis-pulsating Elvis cat.
Though all in the ensemble are lithe and leggy dancers, Heather Lang, in the wild Jellicle Ball scene and McCree Kelly as Mister Mistoffees, the magical, leaping cat, transcend even this, delivering solos that would thrill even in the performance of a top-notch ballet company. William Thomas Evans is a formidable, rich-voiced and winning Old Deuteronomy.
Heating up to a boiling point the second-act, jazzy Mr. McCavity number, Erin Maguire and Liz Griffith sing and dance their hearts out and justifiably brought the house down on opening night.
In the midst of the “Gus the Theatrical Cat” sequence, Jimmy Bennett and Jennifer Malenke handle the faux Italian duet-spoof of Puccini (how ironic!) with fevered, foolish and gloriously musical aplomb. Another show-stopper.
But, of course, as always, the number that brings every performance of “Cats” to a cheering, ultimate standstill is the magical, touching moment when Grizabella, the aged “Glamour Cat,” brings the feline goings-on to a halt and sings, in a farewell moment, “Memory.” Then, that pitilessly over-performed song that has nudged out “Melancholy Baby” on the list of most requested ditties for piano bar pianists, suddenly detaches itself and soars into spine-tingling territory in the context of the show, and in the golden voice and presence, in Patchogue, of Jennifer Zimmerman.
On opening night, the audience simply refused to allow the show to proceed for long minutes, and there were more than a handful of handkerchiefs dabbing at eyes at its conclusion.
“A Chorus Line” and the Maury Yeston “Phantom,” the two crowning and memorable achievements of Gateway until now, were small enough in production values to be repeated, which they obligingly were. “Cats,” which now joins this August duo, and makes it a shining trio, is far too enormous a technical feat to be repeated. And so, without any reservations whatsoever, I urge a quick call to the Gateway box office at 286-1133, before July 24, and the opportunity passes. “Cats” is, at all costs, a must-see.