‘Cats’ was paw-some.
In a rendition that was filled with many paw-sitive aspects, Queensland Musical Theatre (QMT) has successfully presented the infamous musical, ‘Cats’. Often a ferociously contested show, much like the dog vs. cat debate, ‘Cats’ is a show that audiences either love or hate. Never mind the fact that it won seven Tony Awards after performing on Broadway in 1982, those inclined are sometimes not enthused by singing cats and instead want to scratch the humdrum script to shreds.
Inspired by T.S Eliot’s 1939 poetry book, ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’, legendary composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, maintained the ambiguity of the original work with a shallow plot and superficial characters. Instead of focusing on the usual core components of a musical, Webber focused on the spectacle of felines and set his story in the mythical afterlife.
Brought to the stage during the era of mega-musicals, the show embraces the epic quality of special effects, elaborate costuming and physical storytelling. The plot is basic and centres on a tribe of cats known as the Jellicles. Every year, they come together to decide which of them will ascend to the Heaviside Layer (their version of heaven) and be reborn into a new life. The bulk of the show thereafter is essentially contenders introducing themselves; throwing their ‘ball of yarn’ into the mix.
QMT have presented a production with big-budget aesthetics and an overwhelming array of local talent. Director, Kade O’Rourke, welcomed audiences into the world of the Jellicle Cat with roaming performers playing tricks on patrons as they entered the space. They strutted across the stage, bounded down aisles and peeked around corners. It was a nice immersive touch that, although commonly done across many renditions, aptly broke the fourth wall. This styling set the tone for what is to come and highlighted the enthusiastic commitment of a widespread ensemble.
Set designer, Gerard Livsey, imagined a charming higgledy-piggledy set, with trash-like elements, rich embellishments and varying décor and patterns; essentially mixing glamour with graffiti. Multi-levelled staging further utilised the space in full effect; adding height to the overall dynamics and emphasising the meekness of cats. Actors lounged across the wide platforms, arching their hips up and imitating primitive felines in waiting. The set had a lot to it, which allowed O’Rourke and his cast to play effectively.
Julie Whiting led a tight-kept orchestra from the pit. The ‘Cats’ score is sung throughout the storyline and the band was striking in their ability to ring a big sound through the entire theatre space. Choreographer, Jo Badenhorst enthralled audiences by arranging the cohesive movement of an incredibly large ensemble. At all times, every member had a purpose and performed in accordance with it, which was a credit to Badenhorst’s attention to detail. She fuelled songs with gymnastics, ballroom and jazz routines that entertained aplenty. A highlight was the magical ‘Mr Mistoffelees’ that combined elements of physical illusion.
There was a missed opportunity for Badenhorst and O’Rourke to explore tension levels in some of the numbers, especially when embodying the sounds of ‘Cats’. A moment that stands out in this regard, was where music was up-tempo, yet action on stage was mismatched in a duelling, slow-natured catfight. While it is a hard task when the narrative really doesn’t hold many high stakes, manipulation of tension would have kept the audience engaged longer. Clearly, a vast amount of collaboration has gone into the staging of this marathon production, and the two were delightfully proud of their cast, which was vocally evident in their cheers on opening night.
Acknowledging the lack-lustre story-line, QMT’s production opted for some impressive razzle-dazzle effects that have come to be expected of this musical. There was a glowing chandelier which, despite the overwhelming size of the Schonell Theatre didn’t feel too small in the space, and snazzy strobe lighting and pyrotechnics. Although clever lighting design (by Chris Cathcart), direction and choreography added additional ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’, there was a repetitive nature to the production’s style, which affected the energy within the room. The show plunged to a dark UV blue regularly, which stalled momentum between scenes, particularly when there was no imperative action happening.
Unfortunately, another element that detracted from the overall quality of the show was the inconsistent sound levels, which affected the clarity of dialogue and the musical’s many numbers. Specifically, the band was louder than its performers and microphones either cut during songs or weren’t turned on. This seemed like a consistent challenge, and although it could be penned to opening night nerves, it took the audience out of the world. For viewers unfamiliar with the storyline, the inability to hear crucial plot points would have left them perplexed. This an element easily fixed and, without a doubt, will be something QMT tightens as the season progresses.
Despite technical problems, the cast held strong and delivered in spades. An emotional highlight came from QMT newcomer, Alison Mckenzie, who gave a yearning melancholy belt that sent shivers down the arms of many audience members. Her tattered ‘glamour’ cat was perfectly conceptualised – right down to the stiletto heels of her former self. Mckenzie quite easily stole the show to deliver a textbook example of feeling within music in her heart wrenching ‘Memory’.
Other standout performances came from the acrobatic shenanigans of twin burglar cats Rumpleteazer, played by Storm Fraser, and Mungojerrie, played by Brooke Duffin. Fraser adopted a wide-eyed immaturity to her sister and performed with loads of expression, while Duffin distinguished as an annoyed older sibling.
Jaclyn Johnson was also sultry and sassy as Bombalurina and easily stood out within the litter. She was fierce in her approach and sharp in her conviction. Joshua Collins was nimble and quick as Mr Mistoffelees, and displayed an astonishing dance-ability. David McLaughlin was protective and orderly as Munkustrap, Abigail Ellerton was delicate and defined as Victoria, and Jade Kelly belted her way in hearts as the young kitten amongst the pack.
A special mention should also go to Madonna Carr in her ensemble role of Chorus Cat, Saskia. As the first cat that caught the audiences eye before the show, as she rummaged through aisles, Carr was a professional onstage that remained in character throughout the entire performance. It was hard to not look out for this feline favourite. As a collective, the ensemble filled the show with the vitality, wildness and solidarity required to make it a success.
All in all, the stars of the entire production were QMT’s costume and wig team, Renee Milton and Cat Schwarten, who managed to deliver the professional feel of the ‘Cats’ wardrobe, whilst giving each performer their own unique look. The animals varied in hues of ginger, grey, black and white, with individualistic lycra bodysuits and personalised accessories. No two cats were the same, and in a cast of forty-something performers, families would be able to spot their loved ones from afar.
Although the plot of ‘Cats’ lags incredibly, its charm lies within its peculiarity. QMT has come together as a troupe to make this whacky show stand tall in the community. Whether it is your ball of string or not, the production is a spectacle of entertainment. It might even be a show for those with a cat allergy to finally get up and close with some real-life incarnations.
‘Cats’ plays at the Schonell Theatre until Sunday, 3 November 2019. Tickets are available at Queensland Musical Theatre’s Website.