Friday, Feb. 27, 2009

Cat vs. CATS

By Russ Bickerstaff
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CATS—an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the poetry of T.S Eliot that has been hugely successful. In its nearly three decades on the road and on Broadway, the musical has sold countless tickets and probably millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise. It has an undeniable appeal with audiences everywhere, but how does its appeal compare with that of a simple house cat—say for example Fiona—an unassuming tuxedo cat who happens to be a roommate of a certain Milwaukee theatre critic living on the South Side? Let’s take a look—


Relative Size—

CATS—pretty big. The touring production of CATS does fit into a tiny space for transportation purposes, but like so many other Broadway-In-A-Box road shows, it’s not quite big enough to feel spacious or immersive once it’s put onstage. The sense of depth that the set seems to be striving for feels cheap and flat even just a few rows from the front. The stage at the Marcus Center’s (F)Uihlein Hall is huge and spacious, but even when the actors in cat suits crawl out into the aisles at the opening of the show, it doesn’t feel as big as Broadway should when one considers the immensity of the ticket price.

Cat—also pretty big, but while Fiona has lost weight in the past few years, even at her heaviest, she would still fit on your lap. It would be difficult to manage to fit the entire cast (or any of its individual members) quite as comfortably into one’s lap. Fiona is small enough to cuddle up to you on the couch if she feels so inclined, but often prefers sinking into enclosed spaces. In the right mood, she doesn’t mind being petted—and at Fiona’s size, she is small enough make such petting comfortable for everyone involved.

Best Size: Clearly, Fiona’s size is much more suited to her. The musical has difficulty being big enough to seem immersive or small enough to seem intimate. The cat is the clear winner here.


Relative Grace--

CATS— Impressive. The cast of some 25 performers includes some extremely graceful dancers twisting a twirling around in pseudo-catlike motions. When compared to anything on the level of the Milwaukee Ballet, the cast of CATS isn’t really performing anything all that interesting here, but when compared with an actual house cat who has given birth on at least one occasion, the musical is pretty good. Of particular note here is Victoria the White cat, played by Sarah Bumgarner. She’s got an acrobatic, cat-like agility about her that stands out from much of the rest of the action in one of the most distinguishable costumes onstage.

Cat—Considerably less than impressive. Fiona isn’t as limber as she once was. Not  too long ago, she was once able to climb up to a cozy spot on top of a Trinitron and climb into an occupied bed, she isn’t able to get elevated quite as often as she used to. On moving to the house from an apartment on the east side, I recall hearing pawing at the side of the bed, a struggle and a loud thump followed by a hiss. Fiona has been relatively happy at lower elevations ever since.

Most Graceful
—Without a doubt CATS is more graceful than Fiona, but it might not fare as well against the energetic tumbling improvisation of an actual kitten.


Relative Temperament—

CATS—Energetic and playful. Though it has its more somber moments, CATS is more or less high energy from beginning to end, which is exactly what you’d expect from a Broadway musical but not exactly what you might expect from a cat. It may be CATS, but it plays more like a kitten. The energy here is irresistible, even when the story doesn’t seem to be making much of an effort at making any sense, the musical delivers the kind of energy that could, in theory, make one forget that they’re actually seeing some sort of representation of a story.

Cat—Fiona had a rough kittenhood moving from apartment to apartment all over Milwaukee’s east side. As a result, she’s become a bit surly and temperamental. Trust doesn’t come easy with her. In contrast to the musical, Fiona is anything but energetic and playful. She couldn’t be less ingratiating. When petted, she sometimes bites suddenly and without warning. She’ll bat at passing strangers. She has been known to attack mops and vacuum cleaners. Most often she can be found lounging around the house and sleeping. She is fond of resting on warm surfaces.  

Most Agreeable Temperament—CATS is quite eager to entertain, but it feels cloying a times. When Fiona is nice enough to climb into your lap, she’s probably quite a bit more honest about it. Fiona wins this one by sheer honesty.


Relative Musicality--

CATS—With a couple of exceptions (Memories, The Invitation to the Jellicle Ball) the music in this musical isn’t Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best. It was, most likely, quite progressive for its time. The heavy use of the synthesizer probably sounded very fresh and modern in the early 1980’s, but no it sounds as dated as much of the rest of the production’s style. For those into the pop music of the ‘80’s (and, I have to admit, I am) it’s not a bad time. Coming from a relatively early point in the ‘80’s, there are bits of it that are still very reminiscent of the disco music that was on its way out of favor . . .

Cat—Fiona only ever “sings” when she’s hungry. It’s plaintive and minimalist. Fiona’s voice can only be heard when he actually has something to say, which gives her voice a kind of authority that the musical lacks . . . the gentle percussion of her paws against a hardwood floor are only audible when the house is totally silent. It’s more of an abstract expressive sound than the one experienced at the musical . . . something of a Philip Glass sort of a thing if you music think of it in a musical sense.

Most Agreeable Music—CATS wins out here, though the disco end of the musical style is cloying and the constant repetition of certain themes gets to be a bit much at times.


Relative Visual Appeal—


CATS—There’s something really captivating about people dressed up in brightly-colored costumes tumbling around onstage amidst a set that so desperately wants to be far deeper than it actually is. Here the 1980’s style is particularly overpowering as male and female cats alike wear legwarmers and dated jewelry. As graceful as the movements are and as interesting as the lighting effects can be, the compound effect of seeing all of the frenetic action onstage perpetually bludgeoning your visual cortex can be intense. After a while it’s all just a bunch of people in tight, flashy clothing rolling around onstage somewhat rhythmically to the sound of synthesizers. Which, honestly, isn’t that bad if that’s what you happen to be into. 

Cat—Again, Fiona’s visual appeal is minimalist. The classic black and white patterns of a traditional tuxedo cat are particularly interesting on Fiona. The Rorschach-like patterns of black n white curve across her fur in a geometry of mystery. Why is there an “m” that can be seen so clearly on her left flank? Why a single black spot on the right side of her otherwise white upper muzzle? And why is it that she always seems to look at you as though she has something terribly important to tell you, but can’t seem to remember what it is until the next time she’s hungry?

Most Interesting Visual Appeal—While CATS has more than enough flash, it’s a bit overdone. Fiona has much more substantial appeal in the way of natural, organic minimalist mystery. She’s far more appealing visually than the cluttered, colorful cacophony of CATS.


Overall Themes

CATS—The mystery of life, death, youth and old age are covered in the musical along with quite a bit else in a setting that is both mundane and fantastic, but the musical tries to cram way too much between the beginning and the end to really make much of a coherent impression with everything it’s trying to say. Near the end, two people in relatively drab cat costumes are being lifted above the stage in a giant disused radial tire and one is reminded of how truly bizarre it’s all been.

Cat—The mystery of life, death and . . . mystery itself is explored in great depth in a living, breathing organism who seems to always know something you don’t . . . even when it’s not entirely clear that SHE knows what that might be.

Most Interesting Overall Thematically—Raising questions in a provocative way without ever overpowering them, Fiona is far more interesting thematically.

Conclusion—
Cat and CATS finish in a dead heat. Anyone could’ve seen THAT coming . . .

The touring Broadway production of CATS runs through March 1st at the Marcus Center’s (F)Uihlein Hall. Fiona has no scheduled closing date and runs (saunters, actually) indefinitely at a cozy, little house on the south side.

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