‘Cats’ was slick.
In the leafy suburb of Bowen Hills, the lycra, fur and facepaint is all out as the beautifully quirky Twelfth Night theatre plays home to Queensland Musical Theatre’s latest production, ‘Cats’.
The show, one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s works, is based upon the 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot. While the show’s lyrics are largely the words of the poems, new material has been added by Trevor Nunn and Richard Stilgoe. Nunn was the original director of ‘Cats’ who championed it and is the lyricist for the most well-known song, ‘Memory’. Stilgoe is a famous songwriter, credited with a plethora of songs, including other collaborations with Lloyd-Webber. ‘Cats’ premiered in the early eighties and played on Broadway for eighteen years. Translations of the show have played in over twenty countries.
‘Cats’ is a musical that divides musical theatre fans. The show, which is fully sung, often gets a bad rap for having no clearly presented plot and for being about, well, cats. There is, in fact, a storyline in the musical as all the cats are waiting to see which of them will be chosen at the annual Jellicle Ball to be reborn and get a second chance at life. This rebirthing comes in the form of ascending into the ‘Heaviside layer’ (aka, cat heaven). Through the individual songs, we are given information about the various cats’ personalities. The strength of ‘Cats’ as a musical, is the dance numbers and the music of Lloyd-Webber. Many argue that the purpose of the piece is about acceptance and valuing diversity although this is a long bow. The character of Grizabella, who is shunned by the other cats every time she appears, is finally accepted after she tells her tale, however, the turnaround from outcast to ‘chosen one’ is too fast in the script to make an emotional impact on the audience.
Thankfully, Queensland Musical Theatre assembled a cast of highly skilled dancers and engaged a creative and clever choreographer to bring this work to the stage. Choreographer, Jo Badenhorst, utilized the relatively tight space admirably, with levels and constant captivating moments to focus on. The choreography was tightly executed and allowed for all performers to be included and shine.
The energetic felines smoothly transitioned from formation to formation, travelling, turning, leaping and rolling to keep the stage in a constant flurry of movement. The show is physically demanding on performers, trying to simultaneously maintain such dynamic choreography and sufficient breath control for the vocal layers of the show. Here, some performers managed better than others. Standout performers in the dance arena, were Amelia Beveridge, Kelly Modulon, Sienna Randall, Isabella Palmer and Josh Cochrane who maintained their vibrancy for the duration of the show.
One of the challenges with ‘Cats’ is defining the different personalities of the characters, especially when there is a common ‘cat movement’. The team, led by Director, Caley Monro, handled this well, through costuming choices and direction. Byron Philp had a commanding presence as Munkustrap, Emma Hodis made a delightful Jennyanydots, Skye Schultz wowed us with their charisma as Skimbleshanks, and Catherine Schwarten was endearing as Jellylorum. The synergy of Amy Davison and Georgina Walsh as the trickster pair, Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser, was noteworthy as they double-cartwheeled their way across the stage to deliver this fun number.
Timothy Buckney has appeared in several shows across Brisbane recently, and by far, this was his best role. He has gone from strength to strength as a performer, and it was marvellous to see him shine in this role as Bustopher Jones.
Kathryn Bradbury-King had the task of delivering the most well-known song in the show – a difficult feat, standing in the same space as iconic Broadway and West-end performers. Vocally, Bradbury-King delivered magnificently, however, it was hard to sell the character as a lonely, decrepit has-been, with such a youthful performer playing the role. She looked essentially, too gorgeous. Perhaps small changes to costuming and make-up for this character would enhance characterisation.
The ‘feels’ in this show usually come from the cast interactions with Grizabella, however, in this production, the most powerful moment was Old Deuteronomy’s entrance through the audience. Paul Fegan was indeed a highlight in every way possible. Andrew McAuthur’s ‘Gus’ was also heartwarming.
If there was one main criticism of the show as a whole, it was diction. There were several numbers that were showy and delicious dance-wise, but lacked the vocal clarity to understand the lyrics.
The staging of this production was well thought out. The ‘junkyard’, designed by President Gerard Livsey, was fabulous and included materials such as iron sheets, tyres, oil barrels and oversized objects to give us a sense of scale. Levels provided opportunities for the cats to have a full playground, which was utilised well. Special moments included the making of the ‘train’ for Skimbleshank’s number from the movable set pieces and the ladder descending for the trip to cat heaven. Lighting design, by Tom Dodds, also complemented both the showy and quieter moments of the production. Love, love, love it when lighting is timed with the music to create powerful effects and QMT achieved this. Visually, this production is stunning.
Finally, the superb orchestra – led by Michael Keen. For this show, the orchestra utilised the pit, so it was difficult to single out musicians, but the strings in ‘Old Deuteronomy’, the flutes in ‘Memory’ and overall percussion/drums were particularly splendid. Full marks to the tight orchestra who made the show very enjoyable.
For those who love the musical ‘Cats’, you will thoroughly enjoy this production and for those who are on the fence, you might find that Queensland Musical Theatre’s vibrant production makes you reconsider its merits.
‘Cats’ performs until Sunday, May 21, 2023 at the Twelfth Night Theatre in Bowen Hills, Brisbane. For more information visit their website.
What about Lexi Tree’s amazing performance as Victoria, the white cat. She shone in the role!