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‘CATS’ leaves quite the memory

From the uninspired chord sequences and unimaginative melodies, to the paper-thin, bemusing plotlines housing them, many a self-obsessed musical theatre snob would say that they somewhat dread attending productions of anything that the pen of Baron Andrew Lloyd-Webber has touched. 

And yet, Queensland Musical Theatre’s recent production of Lloyd-Webber’s 1981 smash hit musical ‘Cats’ enthralled from the opening of the overture to the button of the orchestra’s exit music, and every feline-fueled dance number in between.

Based on the 1939 poetry collection ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ by American poet T. S. Eliot, ‘Cats’ tells the story (in the loosest possible sense) of the Jellicles: a ragtag troupe of Cats, and the night they make the Jellicle Choice to allow one of their members to be reborn. Although it could be argued that the plot is an artistic take on the natural life cycle of all living things, there is an air of mystery and unfamiliarity when the audience sees cats actively vying to be chosen to complete the age-old ritual.

Since it’s opening in London’s West-End, and near-immediate Broadway transfer, ‘Cats’ has garnered a cult status. In 1982, New York Times Reviewer Frank Rich predicted the show’s success, claiming “it’s a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theater.” If the reaction from the audience of QMT’s ‘Cats’ is anything to go by, despite its 37 years, there are still at least another 9 lives left in this mega-musical.

Ensemble led musicals are notoriously tricky to direct, however, director Kade O’Rourke wove magic into every scene and into all cast members that graced the stage. With such a large cast, his role could be seen as part-director, part-logistics operator, however with clever direction (particularly with the cast using the aisleways in the auditorium itself to ease stage congestion), the end product was one of magic and wonderment. O’Rourke clearly had thought about the pacing of the show, meaning we weren’t left with awkward, unnecessary blackouts, with transitions between scenes appearing well-drilled and inventive.

With little to no dialogue between the musical numbers and the stunningly difficult nature of the orchestral parts, ‘Cats’ could have easily become messy or unfocused. However, the orchestra led by seasoned Musical Director Julie Whiting was sheer class from the outset. From the mystically-surreal synthesised opening to the gloriously British piccolo trumpet solos from Tamaryn Heck, the depth of sound and tightness of the ensemble would be at home on any of Brisbane’s professional stages. The well-balanced orchestra coupled with their level of musicianship allowed the on-stage performers a solid base on which to lay their vocals.

With practitioners in the West End seen as being inferior choreographers by their transatlantic Broadway colleagues, the original ‘Cats’ creatives vowed to make their show “England’s first Dance Musical”. Knowing this, it is no surprise that Jo Badenhorst’s choreography was one of the true stars of the show. With choreographic needs requiring ballet, modern, jazz and tap, it was obvious from the outset that the routines had been drilled to precision in all disciplines.

Most importantly, the cast, to a fault, made Badenhorst’s choreography look easy and enjoyable – no mean feat when there are over 60 performers on stage. One small gripe was the lack of levels in the choreography – with a set full of platforms and staircases, they seemed a little underutilised in favour of slightly crowded floor routines, but this didn’t detract from the overall effect. 

Two clear standouts were Act One’s ‘The Jellicle Ball’ with its clean, precise, and exciting choreography and the much-needed eleven o’clock number ‘Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat’. With its mechanical moves, gung-ho vocals and an unexpected junkyard train (complete with steam!), it was the seamless collaboration between O’Rourke, Whiting, and Badenhorst that cemented this number as a jewel in the ‘Cats’ crown.

Whether it was the performer’s yearning to dress in skin-tight lycra or the fact that ‘Cats’ simply isn’t performed enough, Queensland Musical Theatre managed to cast one of the strongest casts in recent Brisbane community theatre. Although an ensemble show, each cast member found just the right moment to shine, especially under Chris Cathcart’s vibrant lighting design, which continually added to the tension and wonder of the show. With a mix of stadium-style lighting and more traditional musical theatre, it was the use of footlights that truly heightened the atmosphere casting ominous unnerving shadows on the faces of the cast, particularly during ‘The Naming of Cats’, which was downright fearsome.

It would be impossible to mention every single kitty that embraced the stage, but there are several that need overt praise. Acting as the show’s MC and leader of the pack, David McLaughlin’s portrayal of Munkustrap was classy and showed great depth. His ability to command the stage before skulking off to the background was a pleasure to watch, but it was his vocals that set him apart from the other tom-cats, with his silky-smooth baritone filling the Schonell Theatre’s auditorium.

As best friends Bombalurina and Demeter, Jaclyn Johnson and Manuao Ross truly brought the sass during ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’ – a big-band style number where they both got to showcase their powerful vocals. Not only did they look like they were having the best time on stage, the sound balance between the vocals and the orchestra created a particular high point for Act 2.

Puawai Herewini, as Old Deuteronomy was a slice of tenor heaven. From the moment he opened his mouth to sing, the audience was enamoured with Herewini’s powerful, yet placed, vocals. It was a pleasure every single time he addressed his Jellicle tribe and though his time on stage was limited, what little we did experience was bliss.

As Rum Tum Tugger, Darcy Rhodes gave us a mixture of Joey Tribbianni from ‘Friends’ and Cat from ‘Red Dwarf’. The mixture of lothario and the over-the-top campiness was enjoyable to say the least, and Rhodes knew exactly when to command the stage. Unfortunately, aesthetically-speaking, there was something that didn’t sit quite right. 

Whether it was the extremely dark makeup that felt more scary than sexy or the ill-fitting leather outfit, it felt as though there was a noticeable disconnect between appearance and persona. This being said, despite his ‘Kiss’-like appearance, his vocals during ‘The Rum Tum Tugger’ were more Bowie: smooth, seductive, and likely to walk off with more underwear than he came with.

One song is synonymous with ‘Cats’ and, although we get a small teaser during Act 1, when we finally reach Grizabella’s poignant ‘Memory’ towards the latter half of Act 2, it is well worth the wait. Performed flawlessly by Alison McKenzie, the moment was full of emotion and anguish, executed with maturity and professionalism. You’d be hard pushed to find a better rendition on any other stage – including professional theatres. Tutti brava. 

A final notable mention has to be Jonathon Taufatofua for his electrifying portrayal of Scottish Skimbleshanks – a joy from the moment we saw his radioactive orange fur to when he led his merry little band of train enthusiasts off stage!

Renee Milton’s costume design, for the most part, was beautiful – playing close to the original productions, but with small twists. The mixture of colours, textures, and shapes was a feast for the eyes, even if it was a little uneven in its execution with some bodysuits looking a little misshapen or baggy. It should be noted that we saw the end of the two-week run and hand-painted lycra is particularly unwashable, so this may have been unavoidable.

That being said, Grizabella, Old Deuteronomy, and Bustopher Jones’ costumes were a nice change from the full-length bodysuit, and although it may not have been practical, it would have been nice to have found a way to make some of the other leads stand out from the crowd a little more by utilising some of these different techniques. Huge commendations to the full list of artists and costume constructors on this Everest-climb of costume creation.

Gerard Lively’s scenic design was full of whimsy. Immersing the production in a larger-than-life backstage of a theatre. The utilisation of set pieces into choreography and blocking was clever and well-executed. The subtle nods to other Andrew Lloyd-Webber musicals were humorous, although a little understated. The beautiful playbills (with another nod to ALW’s ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’) couldn’t be seen from the audience, which was a shame as they were so well executed. 

In a feat of technical brilliance, a huge congratulations to all involved in Grizabella’s “ascension” scene, which was extremely well done and completely unexpected. More impressive was the collaboration between all disciplines to allow the carriage to return to the ground without being seen by the audience. A special moment, that left many in the audience with mouths agape. 

Queensland Musical Theatre should be commended for this larger-than-life production. For a musical almost completely devoid of any feasible plot, they managed to construct two hours of heart-warming narrative. ‘Cats’ is arguably one of the best productions that QMT has put on in recent years and hopefully, this is the standard of many things to come.

Although the successful season of ‘Cats’ is now over, you can see what else Queensland Musical Theatre are up to in 2020 by visiting their website at https://www.queenslandmusicaltheatre.com

Photography by Deanne Eastwood

This article has been edited by Shane Webb.

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