Get A Load of These Cats – Theater Review

Have we been wrong about Cats all this time? That’s the question and challenge posed by the brilliant production currently prowling the Cohoes Music Hall. The reviews are glowing, the cast is perfection, and this incarnation defies all the jokes that have ever been made about the show. This is the Cats of the original hype, but without the inflated disappointment. It has caused more than a few of the jaded to rethink their thoughts on the material, and it stands up remarkably well 30 years after its premiere.

The first time I actually saw the show was when it was touring in the mid 80’s – we caught a performance in Toronto I believe – the most memorable part of the whole thing being the set, and my Dad’s uproarious imitation of the cats after it was all over, raising his hand like a paw and cracking me and my brother up. He was, to say the least, not impressed, but I didn’t hate it with the gleeful animosity that most people did. In fact, I felt none of the disdain that so many theater snobs seemed to take such joy in expelling. It wasn’t the second-longest running show on Broadway for no reason – there are some decent songs (courtesy of Andrew Lloyd Webber) and some incredible choreography. However, with all the hype of its premiere I think most people went into it expecting some sort of miracle transcendental moment – and this isn’t that kind of show. The power of Cats lies in its performance – in the energetic trooping of its hoofers and a power ballad or two. There is a weak storyline of journeying to the Heaviside Layer, and as much anthropomorphic meaning as you wish can be read into the evening’s festivities, but above all this is about song and dance.

Under the expert direction and choreography of Jacob Brent (who performed in both the Broadway and London productions of the original show), that song and dance is given a gorgeous whirl that majestically captures the graceful movements of the dancers while perfectly melding them into feline form. Along with the always-excellent musical direction of Joshua Zecher-Ross, whose musicians, though few in number, completely fill the space with the necessary bombast for the rigorous dance routines, while subtly pulling out the most delicate harmonies in the quieter moments, the structure and bones of this animal are stalwartly intact. From there it growls, prances, and claws its way into the pantheon of fine performances that the Cohoes Music Hall has seen over as many years as a cat has lives. (This is the start of their ninth season.)

There are several stand-outs in a show rich with remarkable performers, most notably Tony Rivera strutting his stuff and chewing the home-turf scenery as Rum Tum Tugger (he is the very definition of charisma), Chaz Wolcott as the magical Mr. Mistoffeles (he is the embodiment of elegant electricity), John Farchione as Gus/Growltiger and Lucy Horton as Jellylorum/Griddlebone (together the essence of comedic genius). Ruthie Stephens gets the big number, ‘Memory’, and acquits herself admirably as Grizabella.

The rest of the cast is across-the-board superb, with nary a weak paw in the place. Sean Hingel as Munkustrap anchors the show with a convincingly-cat-like regal bearing, while Kelly Briggs as Old Deuteronomy adds the proper imperial note (even holding the stage focus for a cat-nap during intermission). In the end, though, it’s the company as a whole that makes the magic that carries the night – the thrilling Jellicle Ball episode unfolds with one amazing dance sequence after another, unfurling like some indefatigable wind-up toy brought to thrilling human form.

The folks at Cohoes Music Hall have a way of revitalizing new and old shows with integrity and exuberance, both of which elevate this production of Cats into a theatrical experience rich and worthy of exaltation. Go see it now, because this one won’t be around forever.

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