REVIEW: A CATastrophe of the Early 80’s

At once the longest running show on Broadway, “Cats” comes to Omaha for a series of performances.

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Jeslyn Williamson

To describe Cats in a single word, it’s uncanny. Long before cashing in my ticket to the Jellicle Ball, I was fully aware of the reputation this musical held. In short, it was infamous not only for the anthropomorphic cat costume designs, but also for the hideous movie adaptation that came out in December of 2019. However, having never seen the movie and being only vaguely familiar with the costume designs, I went in almost completely blind to what I was about to experience.

The Orpheum’s performance of Cats left me with feelings. I wasn’t sad, embarrassed, or amused, I was just feeling feelings. The problem with seeing such an infamously odd musical at a theater that tends to go above and beyond for their performances is that I didn’t want to hate it. With the opening number alone, the catst’s harmony sold me on the life of a Jellicle cat. I was looking forward to learning the story, surely this show wasn’t as bad as I’d heard.

As a musical, Cats follows an operatic format, meaning the show opens with an overture, and the show is entirely performed in song. Another example of a musical in such a format would be Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, adapted to musical format by Alain Boublil. In the case of Les Misérables, however, the story is easier to follow. The main characters directly introduce their roles, and we learn every important character’s name before the second act. 

If there’s a story in Cats, it’s about as easy to follow as a kitten into her favorite hiding place. After the show opens with a Jellicle song for Jellicle cats, the unnamed cats gather into The Naming of Cats. Most of the cats reciting the poem remain nameless for the remainder of the show, only knowing their names by the playbill… a playbill that my own cat destroyed the next day, mind you. The only names we truly learn from the show are through the cats’ dedicated songs. Most of the cats who receive dedicated songs, however, are left to become background characters for the remainder of the show. The only possible exception would be Rum Tum Tugger, who continues to make appearances well into the second act. 

 Midway through the introduction of the Jellicle cats, we meet Grizabella, an elderly cat who walks with a limp. She becomes the closest character to a protagonist we get, next to Old Deuteronomy. With her inclusion, my feelings about the show become even more mixed. Most musicals are represented by their ballads, and Grizabella’s ballad Memory is truly spectacular.

Overall, the music was pretty good. I won’t sit here and nitpick every single song because even the most confusing ones were really darn catchy. Even as I write, my brain constantly reminds me that never was there ever a cat so clever as Magical Mr. Mistoffelees. Production-wise, I recognize what earned this show the praise it got four decades ago. Even then, the current tour managed to blow away my expectations and improve on the original costume designs tenfold. Back in the 80’s, the cat costumes were focused more on the faces, going out of the way to define the round eyes and the whiskers with heavy makeup, which might’ve looked fine back then, but for the third decade of the 21st century, it comes off as obnoxious. Thankfully, the costume designers for this tour seemed aware of this, and upon seeing the costumes, I was surprised at how… not bad they looked.

At the end of the day, Cats may as well not be considered a show, but an uncanny experience for musical theater fans. The way I see it, if you love musical theater, Cats is a must-see, not for its quality, but simply for the pleasure of being able to say “Yeah, I’ve seen Cats.”