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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Is “CATS” the worst show in Broadway history? Loaded question, I know. It’s difficult to gauge, and even more so to qualify, what the masses crave in any given era, but during his reign over the New York and London box offices, Andrew Lloyd Webber managed to release one show after another, each assembled out of the same ingredients.

Gooey gothic-isms and gaudy theatricals didn’t exist in the theater before “The Phantom of the Opera” and “CATS.” Like the Haunted Mansion at Disneyworld, these shows promise all fang and no bite. Lloyd Webber’s shows give off an unmistakable air of self-importance, as exemplified by the musical biblical interpretation in “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat,” the oppressive Argentinian aristocrats in “Evita” and Jesus Christ as a central character in “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Not surprisingly, each of these shows has been regarded as something of a failure of the form. Indeed, none of Lloyd Webber’s productions present any substance or indicate that their creator put any thought into them; however, strangely enough, this has not had an adverse effect on his audiences. If it sells, it sells. Failure is such a relative term.

“CATS,” contrarily, is not a flop, in the popular sense. It shattered records and lasted nearly 20 years on the Great White Way. Critically, the show proved unimpeachable, winning the Tony Award for best musical, best book and best music. Even after two decades of derision and innumerable jokes, the old war-horse prevailed. In his Pulitzer Prize-nominated play “Six Degrees of Separation,” dramatist John Guare stingingly notes, “Aeschylus did not invent the theater to have it end up a bunch of chorus kids in cat suits prancing around wondering which of them will go to kitty-cat heaven.”

But the kitties just keep on prancing into the night, and they will continue to do so in the touring production now playing at the National Theatre during its four-week run.

Attending a two and a half-hour production featuring the aforementioned sounds like this reviewer’s version of hell. And, well, it is. “CATS,” in all its vainglory, is singly the most fatuous, ill-constructed, harmonically discordant load of bollocks to infiltrate America and take up roost, far overstaying its welcome.

The company is (intentionally) shrill during the large numbers, achieving sounds on par with scraping a stick of chalk down a coarse blackboard. But what really makes “CATS” so abhorrent? It can’t just be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music which, when not imitating other composers’ work, tends to repeat itself and muddle together, forming a symphonic cul-de-sac. Can it be the book, which has been cobbled together from fragments of poet T.S. Eliot’s musings about the secret communities and fiefdoms formed by these domesticated creatures of the night? No, it’s the unexplored territory that leaves the distant, ringing sound of a missed opportunity. Benefiting from a creative mind like Eliot’s should have been at the top of Lloyd Webber’s list of priorities. But the only distinguishing impression these loquacious felines convey is a bounty of tongue-twisting surnames. He’s turned the most seductive, alluring animals into blathering dullards.

Theatrically, ambivalence is one of the most intriguing emotions, as some of the most profound musicals of the last thirty years have proved. “Company” and “Into the Woods” both released themselves from the shackles of musical structure, ruminating on coping with one’s life journey and the relationships formed along the way. But Lloyd Webber takes this notion too far, failing to recognize that being ambivalent about ambivalence creates a vacuum onstage. If there is no one to connect with, why should the audience care about what happens to the characters?

The corps de ballet frolics geometrically across the stage with panache, making the most of Gillian Lynne’s polymorphic choreography. “CATS” has always relied on group effort, finding strength in numbers rather than in individual performances. After a while, it becomes difficult to keep track of which cat is which, especially when they’re cart-wheeling in tandem but, fortunately, the ensemble cast realizes that every role is virtually identical to the next, so there’s a refreshing absence of upstaging among the ranks.

The dancers sport some wobbly legs and the occasional lack of balance but, for the most part, the group works well with they’re given. And the vocals? There isn’t a single eardrum in the house that won’t feel assaulted. In fact, the torch song “Memory” will make you pray for amnesia instead.

All in all, “CATS” is something of a paradox – how could something so flavorless wet the public’s appetite all those years? As Gus the Theatre Cat mourns, “The theatre is not what it was.” How right he is.

“CATS” is playing now through October 26 at the National Theatre, at 1321 Pennsylvania Ave N.W., Tues-Sat at 8 p.m.; Sat & Sun matinees at 2 p.m., Sun evenings at 7 p.m. Ticket prices: $35-$75. Special half-price student tickets issued with current student ID, but limited availability.

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