For my birthday I was lucky enough to unwrap two tickets to CATS in Melbourne. Unfortunately, my birthday is in June and the show was in January, so there was a very anxious 6-month wait before I got to see it. But last Sunday I headed with my mate Kath to the Regent Theater to watch CATS.
CATS holds a very special place in my heart. It was the first musical I ever saw live, and I found it absolutely enchanting. This was my third time seeing it in the theater, as I saw it once in 2001 and again in 2010. I’ve also watched it on DVD probably about a hundred times. I know every song backwards and forward, can identify all the characters by their markings and even own a cat named after one of the Jellicles. I’m a CATS superfan.
So it was with some trepidation that I headed along to this performance. You see, CATS has undergone a little makeover this time around and I knew that there were going to be some tweaks and changes. And I wasn’t certain that I was going to like them. I feel weirdly protective of this musical, and I didn’t want anything to alter the magic that it weaves for me.
The first changes that I noticed were a couple of cosmetic changes to a few costumes. Overall I thought that these were excellent. These alterations updated the characters and made them look a bit more modern. Two changes that I thought were exceptionally good were the costumes of Growltiger and Macavity. In previous productions that I’ve seen, Growltiger, the Pirate Cat was always clad in striped orange, brown and white with a black eyepatch and red sword belt. Although this was visually interesting, I’ve never felt that Growltiger looked imposing enough for the cat that’s called The Terror of the Thames. In his new incarnation, Growltiger’s stripes have changed to shades of black and grey, and he wears a frock coat, black boots and larger black eyepatch. He looks much more rough-and-tumble, and every inch the pirate captain.
Macavity too has undergone a little makeover. Admittedly I was pleased about this because I have often remarked that the original Macavity didn’t look very cat-like. Unlike every other character, I had trouble imagining what Macavity would look like were he an actual cat. But this new costume has been toned down to great effect. Gone are the long claws and shimmering bronze tufts of fur. Now Macavity is scruffy, ginger and svelte. He looked so much more like the street cat that all the other Jellicles fear, and moved all the better during his climactic fight scene.
In addition to costume changes, there have been a few tweaks made to the music. Part of Growltiger’s Last Stand has been altered to have more of a jazz/ soft shoe feel rather than the original operetta, and to be honest I much prefer it. It was easier to hear the lyrics and it was pretty cool to have a group of pirate lad cats growling along to the easy swing beat.
The two most controversial changes involve a couple of the major players in CATS. The first was the overhaul of the Rum Tum Tugger. He has morphed from a rock-and-roll tomcat to a more urban, rap street cat. Initially I was horrified when I saw him swagger onto the stage and begin rapping Tugger’s song. The music itself was all wrong and it just jarred me. I wanted my pelvic-thrusting, lady-pleasing rock-god Tugger back. But after the song was over I realised that the Rum Tum Tugger was still there, just in a different package. His low-slung velvet pants, dreadlocks and gold chains were still housing the same bravado and swag. By the end of the show I was completely sold on hip-hop Tugger, although I still hated his rap.
But the one change that didn’t grow on me at all was the alterations to the show’s lead- Grizabella. I absolutely detested the new direction that’s been taken with this character. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Grizabella The Glamour Cat is an old cat who is an outcast of the Jellicle crew. She was once sophisticated and beautiful but her looks have gone to seed and she’s somewhat down and out. She laments at the loss of her vigor and good looks. Grizabella is usually played by a refined older actress, but this time around Delta Goodrem was cast in the role. Delta is barely older than I, and I was skeptical about her ability to fill the shoes of such greats as Debra Byrne and Elaine Paige. And I was right to be wary.
Grizabella just doesn’t work as a younger character. Her costume had been changed to make her appear younger. Her curly wig has been traded for a straight version that looked lank and stringy. Her usual ensemble of sequinned dress and striped stockings were exchanged for a bustier and suspenders, which underneath her signature fur coat gave the image of a prostitute after a particularly hard night. Grizabella has gone from a sad, older woman past her prime to a trashy slapper with smudged makeup and tangled hair.
And while it’s true that Delta is a much-lauded performer, even her unique voice wasn’t enough to bring the character to life. Her dancing was stilted and awkward and her breathy style of singing wasn’t powerful enough to convey the pain and loss of dignity expressed in Grizabella’s ballad “Memory”. It was disappointing to see the lead role diluted and altered in this way.
But all in all, I thought that the performance was sensational. The alterations to this long-running musical have given it new lease on life and made it feel new again to a fan who has seen it many times. The performers were, for the most part, exceptional. I was particularly floored by Jade Hui-Wen Coutts who played Victoria and Christopher Favaloro as Mr Mistoffelees. Both were astoundingly talented dancers and probably the best performers that I’ve seen tackle these roles to date.
I had an absolute blast revisiting this classic show and renewing my love of CATS. I’m so pleased that I got a chance to check it out for a third time.
Have you seen CATS? If so, what did you think of the current revival of the show?