A Different CATS That Is A Hell Of A Time — Review


The Company | Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman

Joey Sims
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June 21, 2024 12:05 PM

Everyone knows that Cats is absolutely, definitely not a metaphor. (As composer Andrew Lloyd Webber so famously explained to his friend Hal Prince: “It’s about Cats, Hal.”) What PAC NYC’s wondrous reimagining Cats: The Jellicle Ball presupposes is: what if it was a metaphor?

A re-conceived Cats is something of a shocking prospect. I say this not because Webber’s enduring musical hit, which ran on Broadway for a record-breaking 18 years, works fine in its original form. Precisely the opposite – Cats has never made any sense. That was the point. Weber’s bizarre concept, pulled loosely from T.S. Eliot’s poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, imagined a junkyard talent show in which “Jellicle” cats (don’t ask) audition for ascension to the “Heaviside Layer” (heaven, presumably) as judged by their Jellicle patriarch, Old Deuteronomy.

Attempting to find any kind of logic in Cats was always a folly. You don’t think about it — you simply let it wash over you. I always viewed the show as a fascinating oddity, though one could hardly deny that Webber’s compositions are intoxicating earworms. 

Now, with this delectable and positively exhilarating new production (running through July 28 at splashy Lower Manhattan venue PAC NYC), directors Zhailon Levingston and Bill Rauch have accomplished something unthinkable. They have made Cats make sense. 

Rauch’s concept (one which faced some derision following its announcement last year, most foolishly from myself) is to transpose Cats into the queer underground ballroom scene. In this context, a parade of Jellicles strutting their stuff become battling performers in a ballroom competition. Old Deuteronomy (André De Shields) becomes a queer elder judging the competition. The narrator, Munkustrap (Dudney Joseph Jr.), is our catty host for the evening. And Grizabella (“Tempress” Chasity Moore) is a faded trans ballroom icon of yesteryear, cast aside by the world yet worshipped by the new “Cat” generation as a legend. 

Guess what: it works. Absurdly well, in fact. It works because the Ballroom setting lends weight and specificity to a narrative world that previously felt airless, abstract to the point of nothingness. It works because Webber’s songs translate easily (with some skillful help from beats arranger Trevor Holder) to ballroom categories. And most of all, it works because it’s a hell of a lot of fun. 

André De Shields | Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman

Highlights include the electrifying opener, which had my raucous crowd losing their minds from vogue number one; Sydney James Harcourt’s scorching hot take on “Bustopher Jones” (the category is “Realness”); and “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat,” hilariously transfigured by Emma Sofia into the most fabulous MTA conductor you’ll ever meet.

Far from using the culture as a gimmick, Levingston and Rauch pay loving tribute to ballroom’s rich history. A tasteful history lesson at the top of the second act, paired with “Moments of Happiness,” provides an introduction for under-educated audience members like myself. 

And while the whole cast is an embarrassment of riches, two ballroom legends especially stand out. Junior LaBeija, best known as a subject of 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, lends a delightfully weary wit to “Gus: The Theatre Cat” (normally a bore of a number), while Moore finds a soul-stirring sorrow in Grizabella, whose journey to reclamation — helped along by the young voguers, who revere rather than mock this faded queen — takes on a deeply moving new dimension. Moore’s “Memory” is a soaring remembrance of a time, place and culture, a beautiful constellation of queerness lost to age, to illness, and to years gone by. 

Levington and Rauch’s production is still rough around the edges, and a few sections feel forced into cooperation with the new concept. “Mungojerrie & Rumpleteazer” is messily fashioned as a Tag Team, while Old Deuteronomy's kidnapping and rescue is somehow even more confusing than in the original. Arturo Lyons’ and Omari Wiles’ choreography is masterful in each individual element, but the frenzy on stage can sometimes overwhelm. And even the masterful André De Shields cannot quite sell an effort to recontextualize the show’s wacky final number, “The Ad-Dressing of Cats,” as a reclamation of space for marginalized queer identities. 

But finally, and crucially, a note on Mr. De Shields. This living legend’s first arrival as Old Deuteronomy was a moment in the theater I will never forget. Expertly built-up excitement gave way to pandemonium as he was revealed, fabulously draped and adorned with a gloriously oversized purple-tinged wig. Truly no other performer could command such a roaring audience response. Yet the moment also embodied everything thrilling about this Jellicle Ball: delightful excess, majestic emotion, and an honoring of the essential queer history which must be remembered – and honored. 

Cats is now in performance at PAC NYC through July 28, 2024.

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Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, American Theatre Magazine, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC, New York Theatre Guide, No Proscenium, Broadway’s Best Shows, and Extended Play. He was previously Social Media Editor at Exeunt, and a freelance web producer at TodayTix Group. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, and a script reader for The O’Neill and New Dramatists. He runs a theater substack called Transitions.

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