Cats (Columbus Children’s Theatre & Columbus Moving Company – Columbus, OH)

 


Cats, one of the longest-running and most popular stage musicals worldwide, has always been a bit of a puzzlement to many a theatre fan, myself included. The show doesn’t follow the usual structure of a musical or stick to any of its conventions, yet it has proven to be incredibly popular and successful. Adapted from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats with music supplied by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats was one of the British mega musicals that took over Broadway during the 1980s. In all the show ran for eighteen years on Broadway and has toured the country since the mid ’80s, a favorite for families long before Disney’s The Lion King appeared on the horizon in 1997.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Grace Johnson (Jemima) and Devin Judge (Munkustrap)
 

Cats is an assemblage of various character numbers with only the barest semblance of a plot; its main assets are a catchy score, character design, and dancing. It isn’t a real musical in the traditional sense, but it has surely drawn many people to the theatre over the last thirty-five years who may now owe their initial curiosity about live theatre to this show; in that way, Cats is a force musical theatre scholars can’t deny, one that has helped to foster generations of theatregoers who perhaps moved on to more serious and deeper pastures musically. The show’s flagship song “Memory” is now a standard, one that even the staunch theatre cognoscenti (those that count Cats along with other British juggernauts like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon as somehow inferior works) can’t discount entirely. 

  

Photo: David Heasley – William Macke (Skimbleshanks)
 


Cats has now arrived via Columbus Children’s Theatre and Columbus Moving Company at the historic Lincoln Theatre in a production that is elaborate with energy to spare. Here the cats frolic and scamp about, sometimes even through the aisles around the audience. This production replicates so many of the costumes and bits of stage business quite familiar to fans of the show while making some notable and welcome changes that aid in making it the kind of local event that commands attention. Even if you’ve seen Cats many times before, this production is still very much worth your time and attention.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Rumpleteazer (Sara Tuohy) and Mungojerrie (Kyle Swearingen)
 
Highlights of this production include seeing Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Kyle Swearingen and Sara Tuohy respectively) perform their number with added acrobatic feats; William Macke shimmy his way around the stage as Skimbleshanks, The Railway Cat; Ryan Stem’s solemn and solid portrayal of Old Deuteronomy; Stewart R. Bender performing double duty as jolly Bustopher Jones and the heartbreakingly infirm Gus, The Theatre Cat; and last but far from least, Kendra Lucas as Grizabella, The Glamour Cat, eloquently delivering “Memory” as if the words are occurring to her for the first time, more than matching the best interpretations of that famous song.

 

Photo: David Heasley – Kendra Lucas (Grizabella)
 
Director Ryan Scarlata sticks close to the feel and staging of the 1998 film version produced for television and video release, which appears to have been a valuable reference. Still, some of the best moments are when Mr. Scarlata and choreographer Jeffrey Fouch (who also adeptly performs as Quaxo and Mr. Mistoffelees) veer away from what we expect from Cats, incorporating more gymnastics and acrobatics into the presentation. Michael Brewer’s decrepit circus set fits the material far better in my mind than the traditional junkyard, as the various musical sequences feel more like circus or vaudeville acts than alley performances. Brendan Michna’s layered lighting serves to enhance each scene and support the excellent craftsmanship of the many talented people working behind the scenes to make sure the makeup, costumes, and wigs are just right.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Krista Lively Stauffer (Jellylorum) and Stewart R. Bender (Gus)
 
The only aspect of this production that is sometimes disappointing is that of the music, which is a pretty big deal for a musical. I’m sure it’s no fault of musical director Jonathan Collura as he never missteps in his accompaniment, but only so much can come across without the proper instrumentation. Many numbers sound more like elevator Muzak than what should be playing alongside the action on stage.

 

Photo: David Heasley
 
Columbus Children’s Theatre and Columbus Moving Company have done a remarkable job mounting Cats with production values that meet or exceed what we usually see from national tours when they pass through Columbus. It really says something when I find myself enjoying a production of a show of which I’m not particularly fond, but that is exactly what happened in this case. Don’t let the 150-minute running time listed on CCT’s website scare you off; it actually runs two hours including the intermission though no songs are missing or are abridged (aside from “Growltiger’s Last Stand” and perhaps longer dance sequences that pass without notice). Cats is still a show that makes many a theatre fan roll their eyes, but I found myself humming the tunes to “The Rum Tum Tugger” and “Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat” as well as the ubiquitous “Memory” for days afterwards.

***/ out of ****

Cats continues through to May 15th in the Lincoln Theatre located at 769 East Long Street, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/cats.html

School of Rock The Musical (Winter Garden Theatre – NYC)

Popular films being turned into Broadway musicals seems like a modern trend, what with Finding Neverland, Kinky Boots, and An American in Paris being recent examples, but the truth is that musicals have been – and will continue to be – adapted from popular films in the hope of creating a success with a known property in a different medium. I’d wager that the risk doesn’t pay off more often that not, but that won’t stop people from trying. The latest example of a screen to stage transition comes from the 2003 hit Jack Black comedy, The School of Rock, aided and abetted with music by the Andrew Lloyd Webber of The Phantom of the Opera and Cats. It’s hard to ignore a new Mr. Lloyd Webber musical no matter your personal feelings about the man and his impact on musical theatre, and School of Rock The Musical is no exception. Instead of starting in London like other Mr. Lloyd Webber musicals, this show is premiering on Broadway, it’s American flavor probably being the factor most responsible for this difference. I had not seen the film, and I waited to see it until after seeing the Broadway musical; what’s interesting is to see how this stage version has improved upon its source while also introducing some problems of its own.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 


School of Rock The Musical
is about Dewey, who has big dreams of having a career in rock music, the same dreams he has had since high school. He lives with (and mooches off of) his friend Ned until Ned’s girlfriend, Patty, threatens eviction. Dewey needs cash fast, and so he pretends to be Ned to secure a long-term substitute teaching position at prestigious private school Horace Green, figuring that he can fake his way along for a few weeks until the annual “Battle of the Bands” competition. Once Ned realizes how much musical talent his pupils have he organizes them into a band named “School of Rock,” educating them on all ’70s and ’80s rock music and bands, thinking that together they can all compete at the “Battle of the Bands”; that is, if Principal Rosalie doesn’t find out Dewey’s real identity first and show him the door.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 
Alex Brightman stars as Dewey, managing to out-Black Mr. Jack Black from the film with his exuberance and musical talent. Whereas Mr. Black played the part for comedy alone, Mr. Brightman brings real rock performing chops to the floor while also hitting (and improving upon) every comedic moment retained from the film. Whereas Dewey is an unrealistic dreamer in the film constantly being kicked out of bands, Mr. Brightman plays him more as an undiscovered talent, and it isn’t too hard to believe that he could have some legitimate career if the right opportunity presented itself. Mr. Brightman is a Dewey that you want to succeed and is more likable than his silver screen counterpart; he brings so much heart to the play that is sorely needed to sustain it.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 
It is the singing, dancing, musical instrument-playing kids that nearly steal the show from Mr. Brightman, each one of them bringing so much personality to their performances. Some of the standouts among Dewey’s students are Isabella Russo as Summer, the bossy overachiever; Brandon Niederauer as Zack, the guitar prodigy; Ethan Khusidman as Mason, the shy keyboardist; Bobbi MacKenzie as Tomika, the withdrawn girl who reveals her great big, beautiful voice; and Luca Padovan as Billy, the pint-sized fashion designer with sass. It’s interesting to note that curtain is at 7.30pm and not the usual 8pm, perhaps owing to its young cast and the fact that there aren’t rotating casts of children like at some other kid-heavy shows. JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography is playful and not robotic like what can be found in Matilda, and director Laurence Conner should be congratulated for the riotous but controlled chaos within the show, even if the large production with all of its impressive moving parts aren’t enough to gloss over some of the book’s deficiencies (more on that later).

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 
Sierra Boggess plays Principal Rosalie in the role originated by Joan Cusack in the movie; you’d be hard pressed to find two more different actresses for the same part. Ms. Boggess has an expanded role in the play as a music teacher, an unnecessary contrivance that allows her to show off her operatic singing ability; she leaves little doubt that she is a leading player in a part more suited to a quirky supporting actress. Still, Ms. Boggess appears to be having a grand time, only really coming alive once her character’s love for Stevie Nicks is exposed, belting out “Where Did the Rock Go?” and endearing herself to the audience. Ms. Boggess comes off as perhaps too quick to fall for a lot of Dewey’s shenanigans, but there is no denying her chemistry with Mr. Brightman; their budding friendship in the show rings true. At least a superfluous love subplot between Dewey and Principal Rosalie wasn’t added as I had feared it would be for the stage musical, but being grateful for changes not made is a dubious honor when other additions that were made are so lackluster.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 
Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame has adapted the film written by Mike White by adhering closely to the source material; still, added scenes with the rest of the faculty at Horace Green and Patty’s drive to expose Dewey as an imposter are strikingly dull contrasts to the scenes with Dewey and the kids. I noticed more people checking the time on their phones during these scenes than during any other show I saw on this New York trip, the first time being just twenty-nine minutes into the play! That can’t be a good sign; surely there was a better way to expand the book of this property for the stage. And what was with the scene in the second act when Principal Rosalie enters the classroom stating that she thought she heard music? Sure, it leads into a very funny, improvised song about the joys of math, but didn’t all of the music the kids played during the first act disrupt the other classes? This logic gap is also in the film, though it’s odd that it was retained in the book to the show as well.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 
Mr. Fellowes makes a few other changes that I find curious, such as a scene where names are suggested for the band. In the film there are two sweet little girls suggesting cutesy names like “The Koala Bears,” then suddenly adding in “Pig Rectum” as an option. That moment is quite funny because of the contrast with their other suggestions; in Mr. Fellowes’ stage adaptation, the line is given to the Streisand-loving, clothing-designing Billy. There was some uneasy laughter at that moment in the theatre as it felt suddenly tasteless to have Billy reference a rectum, as if making the gay kid say the line would make it funnier; it just brought with it a sexual connotation that it didn’t have in the film because of the change in context.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 

School of Rock The Musical doesn’t “sound” like an Andrew Lloyd Webber show (he wrote the music while Glenn Slater handles the lyrics), but perhaps that is the point; I’ve heard criticism that many of his songs could be interpolated into different shows and still sound right (imagine “Memory” moved from Cats to Sunset Boulevard, or “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” transplanted from Jesus Christ Superstar to Evita), but that isn’t the case here. While I may not have left the theatre humming any tunes, the score has its best moments in “You’re in the Band,” “If Only You Would Listen,” “Stick It to the Man,” and the humorous “Math Is a Wonderful Thing.” The score is one that grows on you quickly if you give it a chance, but without songs that overwhelm the storytelling like perhaps we are used to from Mr. Lloyd Webber in the past. I wonder if more actual rock songs should have been included instead of just Jim Steinman’s “Where Did the Rock Go?”

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 

School of Rock The Musical succeeds because of Alex Brightman and all of those talented kids in the cast. No matter how plodding and contrived the rest of the book may be, the scenes between the teacher and his pupils are fantastically entertaining. There is a sense of palpable joy whenever the kids and their teacher are together that make School of Rock The Musical worth seeing; this is one film to stage adaptation that surpasses the quality of its source material.

*** out of ****

School of Rock The Musical is performed at the Winter Garden Theatre at 1634 Broadway (at W. 50th St.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://schoolofrockthemusical.com

  

The Phantom of the Opera (Majestic Theatre – NYC)

My first show of this NYC trip was The Phantom of the Opera yesterday at 2pm. This is the fifth time I’ve seen it but only the second time in New York; it was my first Broadway show in February 1999. Wow, and here I am exactly sixteen years later, in the same theatre seeing the same show. My theatre friends were poking fun at me for seeing it alongside so many new shows (“Do you have insomnia? Is that why you chose Phantom?”), but the fact is I was taking a friend who had never seen it and there was a Thursday matinee, meaning I didn’t have to sacrifice seeing another show in its place.

James Barbour was great as The Phantom, squeaky shoes aside during the scene where he crawls across the stage. He is a controversial choice as he served time for a sex offense years ago, but a guy has to make a living, right? And he is talented. Would I recommend him to be a mentor for teenage girls? No, but can I recommend his competent and strong performance as The Phantom? Sure. They just need to change his shoes.

Kaley Ann Voorhees as Christine and Jeremy Hays as Raoul were refreshing after seeing others walk through those parts on tour. Hays in particular avoids the cardboard clichés so easy to fall into with that part, and his blonde, unkempt hair adds to his charm. I can’t say as much for some of the supporting players, as a few of them seemed to react a split second before things happened; a few of the chorus girls looked and moved like forty-five year-old divorcées.

The production is still grand and runs like clockwork, and the sound was remarkably clear and directional, save for a buzzy mic that was silenced quickly during the scene on the rooftop. I much prefer this original production to the “new” one currently on tour. That new production (NOT directed by Hal Prince) has a rotating set piece that has the show appearing smaller and cheaper, and it is without the great staircase for “Masquerade” at the top of the second act.

An interesting thing happened while I was waiting outside the theatre for my friend to arrive. I was standing in front of the doors onto which a large photo of the “Masquerade” scene was affixed. A man was walked by, stopped, looked back, and then asked me, “Excuse me, sir, what kind of establishment IS this?” He pointed to the doors behind me. I said it was a theatre where they perform The Phantom of the Opera, and he then shook his head and walked on. Did he think it was some kind of club? Did he somehow miss the sign to my right proclaiming it to be Broadway’s longest running musical?

***/****