Bursting back into the glamorous Seattle Paramount Theater this week is “Cats,” the 1981 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on T.S. Eliot’s “Book of Practical Cats.” Touted as the original production, this “Cats” makes a splash largely due to its excellent ensemble singing and dancing, as well as some laugh-out-loud highlights – despite a whole lot of unnecessary pyrotechnics.
As everyone discovered when this musical hit the London (then New York) stage and changed musical theater forever, “Cats” relies on atmosphere rather than plot – and this production well and truly delivers. With the original set and costume design by John Napier, the larger-than-life garbage pile and fuzzed-up cat faces from sleek Siamese to mangy cur are kicked up a notch by some brilliant make-up, which you get to see up close as the cats (sorry, that would be ‘cast’) dart into the audience, hissing in faces to great effect at the start.
The other big effect is the choreography, taken from the original by Gillian Lynne. These dancers really do move like cats, with plenty of nose-rubbing, down-pointed paws and arched backs, and they tackle the long-winded dance interludes with professional skill. They also sing wonderfully together – a true choir, rather than just your average stage chorus belting out tunes, dragging along even the more laborious of Lloyd Webber’s repetitive phrases with vocal sparkle.
Yet ultimately the strength of “Cats” – like its original book of poems – is its characters, and a few in this production hit the jackpot. As the Rum Tum Tugger Chris Stevens channels David Bowie with eerie accuracy, flaunting his blond ruff and skin-tight unitard with some feline-wowing pelvis grinds and magnetic presence. Daniel Switzer and Hillary Porter manage to tag-team as the comedy cats Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer while executing an impressively acrobatic number. As Mr. Mistoffelees, Chaz Wolcott truly is magical, with a seemingly neverending ability to pirouette, and Christopher Sidoli made a dastardly operatic Growltiger. Only the overwrought Grizabella (Melissa Grohowski) was a let-down (and her synthesized accompaniment didn’t help.) The other distraction is the garish string of Christmas lights from stage to house and unnecessarily constant strobe effects.
Is this version of “Cats” worth bringing back? In the middle of the lengthy, self-aware dance sequences it’s hard to say yes. But if you had to, then this production more than does it justice.
“Cats” runs 7:30 p.m. April 18 and 19; 8 p.m. April 20, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. April 21 and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. April 22. $20-$75. Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle. 877-784-4849, stgpresents.org