Fringe Online 2020
The 1997 production is directed by Trevor Nunn and David Mallet with Musical Staging and Choreography by Gillian Lynne, Lighting Mike Sutcliffe,. Music Director Simon Lee. Art Directors Peter Bingerman and David Munns. With the choral parts taken by the Conquordia Singers Musical Supervisor Michael O’Flaherty, David Cullen and Lloyd Webber orchestrate, with original sound design by Lee McCutcheon. Make-Up Designer Karen Dawson Harding. Wardrobe Lesley Lightfoot.
Producer Cameron Macintosh and The Really Useful Company, Executive Producer Gary Lucchesi
Cinematography by Nick Knowland
Adelphi Theatre, Produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Executive Musical co-Production manager. Line Producer Andy Pacheta
Some might yet again experience buffering issues, not present in the first two broadcasts, which might be down to the uptake. Just before the interval it became on first viewing more buffering opera than opera buffa. For a day only. Till May 16th (19.00).
Probably the most-awaited of all the Andrew Lloyd-Webber Musicals At Home, his 1981 Cats the seventh of this reign is yet again only available for a day, so catch it quick and you’ll land on your feet. Sadly it’s dedicated to Lloyd-Webber’s own cat who’s just been killed.
It’s the 1997 Adelphi production released a year later and shot over 18 days in August that year – just in tome to avoid the universal ritual woe around Diana’s death when everything was suspended. Valerie Eliot giving permission for T.S, Eliot’s verses to be set though as we’ll find out, not for the first time.
It’s with reservations of editing the definitive version and as everyone says infinitely preferable to the recent remake. The percussive piano-led attractively tinkly side of Lloyd-Webber’s musical armoury still cuts through despite the 70-strong orchestra used in this new version. It’s an individual sound-world quite unlike his other musicals.
We start softly on pads… Tommi Sliiden’s Coricopat’s the male twin of Kaye Brown’s Tantomile. Both are psychic – first among Jellicles to sense strangers, perfectly synchronised in their movements, near-identical. Then we purr up.
The Jellicles being a chorus top and tail this glorious if trimmed-down production running for just 115 minutes and unrelated cats get rightly absorbed into the cattery providing the only narrative we get – or really need. The overture gives on Jellicles and ‘The Naming of Cats’.
This segues into Phyllida Crowley Smith’s Victoria, a balletic white kitten (wrapped in a sort of sci-fi space suit), alarmingly balletic when she gyrates hanging upside down: and how she dances. Mmm never seen her before. Nor Plato – a dancing role in the film, he pas de deuxes with Victoria. It’s Bryn Walters’ first appearance, who as we’ll see plays the annoyingly silent – mewed-up – role of Macavity.
And what names continue…. There’s – well start with the book: Michael Gruber’s Munkustrap a black and silver tom, storyteller and protector of the Jellicles. With this seemingly rather late 1970s Heaviside Layer mystagoguery all about rebirth, not a bad way to theme nine lives. In fact it’s an Eliot fragment cleverly given the motor of the plot, a Buddhist cat notion of heaven.
More famously, there’s Susie MckKenna’s Jennyanydots: Heralded as the ‘old Gumbie Cat’ (not quite that old originally), she sits all day and rules the mice ‘their manners not nice’ and cockroaches by night. Why couldn’t we have had more of this sparky 1920s foxtrot sound in By Jeeves? It’s close in mood to Herod’s song too.
John Partridge’s Rum Tum Rugger is like every 1970s idol you’ve seen, er… Tim Curry. He gyrates with more than his pelvis. His contrary restless nature’s well brought out and it’s great to make him a real wow-meouw. The sexiest tom and Munkustrap’s younger brother he has a female caterwauling. It’s so embarrassing when even the older ones take a fancy, what’s a cat to do? Plonk a paw over their mouths. So there’s Jo Bingham’s Etcetera, a cheerfully energetic and excitable kitten. And Leah Sue Morland’s Electra’s a reserved kitten – an orange and black tabby mewing second to Etcetera. There’s Jemima, innocent and nosey. Veerle Casteleyn’s voice was dubbed over by Helen Massey due to producers fearing her accent.
We get a flit of Elaine Paige’s Grizabella but she doesn’t sing yet, introduced by a feline cast, rather cattily.
We need an elegant contrast. We’re soon treated to James Barron’s wonderfully orotund Bustopher Jones. He’s a remarkably stout cat, Bustopher in a smart suit and ‘it must and it shall be spring in Pall Mall/when Bustopher Jones wears white spats.’ As upper class ‘St James’ Street Cat’, Bustopher curls time at Getleman’s Clubs, nosing it with London’s high society.
There’s mischief – though cut down really. Those notorious ‘cat-burglars’ tabbies – Drew Varley’s Mungojerrie and Jo Gibb’s Rumpleteazer – get a burst cartwheeling-caterwauling-duet, an extravaganza mirror routine to darken the bright procession following. Cockney meets high Broadway somewhere near Queensway.
Old Deuteronomy’s patriarch of the Jellicle Tribe slows things to a largo, Nor originally their patriarch, it’s a fine way of stitching him into the narrative. Ancient, slow-moving often somnolent on a wall – not here of course – he stops traffic or even pub drinking. He’s here purred by the original Broadway cast member Ken Page.
An energy boost is needed again and there’s the Rumpus Cat: A legendary spike-haired cat with glowing red eyes (actually infra-red goggles); a super hero amongst Jellicles breaking up the Pekes and Pollicles’ scrap. It’s the second role taken by Frank Thompson.
Then there’s that suppressed poem Eliot held back because it was so melancholy: and Valerie Eliot gave Lloyd-Webber ‘Memory’ so delighted was she with his writing up to then. And so the best song Lloyd-Webber has ever written was born. Cleverly Lloyd Webber now introduces an instrumental memory of Phantom as if Grizabella recalls being the Phantom’s muse – a superb touch.
Grizabella was famously nearly Judi Dench but on her injury Elaine Paige took over and portrays her again. It’s quite stunning – Paige even deliberately cracks her voice, and it should crack yours too. Grizabella: The former Glamour Cat who has lost her whiskery sparkle now only wants acceptance by her former friends and family. In fact it’s Old Deuteronomy who drifts ghost-like round her, the only one who gets it. Then slowly others to a whole string section. Or are we locked in a Memory indeed? Other melodies and small acts coalesce but we’re drawn back to ‘Memory’. Lloyd Webber knew what he’d managed here and draws the whole show towards this late-coming piece and gives it its beating heart. Surely too 16 years on this must have carried a special poignancy for Paige.
Old Deuteronomy comes in with – a quotation from Eliot’s Four Quartets (‘Burnt Norton’) to underscore the Eliotian philosophy.
Now here’s some role-confusion but a masterstroke to follow Paige. Tony Timberlake takes the split part of Asparagus – a general chorus cat – not to be confused with Gus the Theatre Cat in the video production here, the two roles separated due to John Mills being a miraculous ninety – so the dancing and singing roles of Asparagus Mills once excelled at went to Timberlake.
Jellylorum- here a motherly cat watching for kittens – caring for Gus takes Gus’s narration. Mills then takes over with a miraculous importunity. Jellylorum’s another original London cast member – Susan Jane Tanner.
Touching and apposite as this is, it’s a dramatic opportunity missed as well. And this song, as with the ‘Jellicle Ball’, ‘The Naming of cats’ ‘Old Deuteronomy’ ‘Bustopher’ Jones’ and ‘Gumbie Cat’ has a rival In 1955 the superb composer Alan Rawsthorne – he wrote film scores like The Cruel Sea too – set his own Practical Cats, for speaker and orchestra and it’s electrifying. Simon Callow voiced a 2011 version, and Robert Donat the 1955 one.
We need another burst after that and a move from green-blue midnight to an orange-yellow flash of ginger…. And red lighting Hail Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat. A hyper active orange tabby who lives on a train, unofficial chaperone of the night train to Glasgow. Geoffrey Garratt leaps about beguilingly, with an almost 18th century elegance; though dubbed in his song by David Arneil.
This production really ramps up some effects that were impossible in 1981. There’s a green edge, a thunderclap and….. yes a melody that wasn’t there either, the main theme from Phantom of the Opera ghosts here too. It’s Macavity. And is there a whiff of the great Pink Panther theme? Certainly with the muted brass trombones and cool modern jazz effect from the 1950s, you can’t mistake it.
The show’s only real villain left, Bryn Walters’ non-singing Macavity goes sweepingly out of his way to terrorise the Jellicles in some of the most energetic routines and light shows the musical can offer.
He’s introduced by show stopping, very slinky apparitions straight out of Chicago: Semarie Ford’s Bombalurina – a blatently sexy red routine – sashays into song. She’s partnered by Exotica’s dark, sleek brown/cream, close to Cassandra in appearance if you can pick her out (actually go to the end first if you want to memorize the characters, it’s well-introduced with images). Exotica’s a character created specially for Femi Taylor, part of the original London cast as Tantomile. There’s quite a few names Eliot never dreamed of, though his wife was thrilled with them too.
Another energy number’s needed after the almost show-stopping catastrophes unleashed in the foregoing storm. Cue a clap of thundering lights. All purple/violet deepening to midnight blue with a foregrounding of gold, white and black. Well it’s a turn! And a choral number – though the best after ‘Memory’ and almost as well-known. Jacob Brent’s Mr Mistoffelees (also Quaxo) – a youthful tom with magical powers is a dance-only role; his signature dance move being the ‘Conjuring Turn’ – a ripple of fouéttes.
And we’re back to Paige’s heartbreaking ‘Memory’. Lloyd-Webber’s right to end – in solo terms – with this haunting touch of genius. And with Paige. A narrative using Old Deuteronomy’s rebirth brings us this whacky heavisphere storyline, with a hint that Paige is getting the same treatment, a bit prematurely! But we’re ending with her.
Other parts flit by. There’s attractive work from Rebecca Parker’s Cassandra: She’s hailed as a sleek brown and cream female Abyssinian, with a braided tail and rolled wig, and no leg warmers. Admetus is a black’n tan beige with a soft, vaguely striped unitard, and a brown, white and black wig. Frank Thompson who as we’ve seen also plays the Rumpus Cat leaps in with a swish. Aeva May’s Demeter for instance is a shy and skittish queen.
Of other Jellicles there’s Jason Gardiner’s Alonzo: elegant black and white tom, here the Jellicles’ No. 2 after Munkustrap. He flirts rampantly, but proves talon-brave, capable of reflection.
There’s Karl Morgan’s bouncy young Pouncival: a skittish adolescent tom he leaps everywhere, rubs up older cats, frolics with kittens. Finally there’s Fergus Logan’s Tumblebrutus – a bouncy, Tiggerish young cat. Well that could be said of half the cast.
The show typically runs to 2 hours 40, so 45 minutes went. Sadly the entirety of ‘Growltiger’s Last Stand’ was cut – easily the most dramatic narrative of Eliot’s verses – along with parts of ‘The Jellicle Ball’, which is more understandable. As are bits of ‘The Old Gumbie Cat’, ‘Mr. Mistoffelees’. ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’ gets a nail-trim, and ‘Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer’. In other words the darker crime-seam despite the inclusion of ‘Memory’.
Still this is easily the finest production we’ll get with two original cast members and a third who joined on Broadway. And pulling in some of the finest from shows the world over. They’re outstanding; simply identifying most of them here makes it easier to spot each actor’s excellence, or this review would double. Note the names who went on or who were stars in their own right. Everything from Gillian Lynne’s musical staging and choreography, through Karen Dawson Harding’s make-up and Simon Lee’s musical direction is sovereign.
But it’s the quality of reinvention the extra care with re-orchestration and yes that cheeky Phantom ghosting in, which makes this show, with as you’d expect sovereign contributions from everyone, even the dubbers, and a light show that’s the wackiest in any Lloyd-Webber musical. Unmissable and grab it, you’ve got… as this goes up less than a day.