Lloyd Webber’s Cats Shows No Sign of Ageing

31/07/2014

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats:  Singers, Dancers, and Orchestra / Anthony Gabriele (musical director), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 29.7.2014 (PCG)

Nicholas Pound (Old Deuteronomy)
Sophie Ragavelas (Grizabella)
Joseph Poulton (Quaxo, Mr Mistoffelees)
Filippo Strocchi (Rum Tum Tugger)
Natasha Mould (Jemima)
Benjamin Yates (Mungojerrie)
Cameron Ball (Macavity, Admetus)
Dawn Williams (Rumpleteazer)
Paul F Monaghan (Bustopher Jones, Asparagus, Growltiger)
Clare Rickard (Griddlebone, Jellylorum)
Adam Lake (Alonzo)
Charlene Ford (Bombalurina)
Jack Allen (Carbucketty)
Cassie Clare (Cassandra)
Benjamin Mundy (Coricopat)
Zizi Strallen (Demeter)
Abigail Jaye (Jennyanydots)
Callum Train (Munkustrap)
Ross Finnie (Skimbleshanks)
Kathryn Barnes (Tantomile)
Hanna Kenna Thomas (Victoria, White cat)
Adam Salter (Bill Bailey)
Ryan Gover, Barry Haywood, Alice Jane, Grace McKee, Dane Quixall and Libby Watts (Swings)

Today, when Andrew Lloyd Webber has bestridden the musical stage like a colossus for over forty years, it has become fashionable in some quarters to decry his pursuit of commercial success at (it is implied) the expense of musical quality. But such a charge is really hardly warranted by the nature of his initial ventures into the medium. None of his early musicals had anything that might be regarded as a guarantee of commercial success. Joseph was originally written for schools performance; Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita had to be issued on disc and prove their worth before being given the opportunity of theatrical presentation. Cats, on the other hand, was always designed for the stage, and the dance element was an essential part of the concept from the first (there was a single release in advance of two of the numbers, but oddly enough this did not include the best-known song Memory which had yet to be written). But again the choice of texts by T S Eliot, and the lack of much in the way of a connected dramatic plot, hardly argue for the pursuit of commercial viability at the expense of anything else. Much (one suspects) to everyone’s surprise, Cats proved to be an instant success with both the public and the critics in 1981, and it went on to break box office records wherever it was given.

In view of the fact that the production designs and choreography were such an essential part of the conception, it is not surprising that Cameron Mackintosh as impresario insisted that all subsequent productions outside London should mirror as closely as possible what had been seen on the stage of the New London Theatre. Here in Cardiff the sets, costumes, makeup and movements all matched closely the staging that ran in London for over twenty years. This had some minor drawbacks. Unlike the relatively intimate New London Theatre, the Wales Millennium Centre with its vast spaces inevitably distanced the action from the audience. The movement of members of the cast around the auditorium (or at least the stalls area) became somewhat meaningless – and would presumably have been largely invisible to those in the upper reaches of the theatre – and it was sometimes difficult to tell exactly where the amplified voices were coming from. Nonetheless most of the original effects came over well, and the choreography was as gripping as ever. One might have thought that, thirty years after its initial outing, Cats might have benefited from a more extensive re-imagining; but, given that the original was so effective, and the possibility of ruining that effect by a producer intent on displaying his own ideas at the expense of those of the composer, one can hardly complain. And why spoil a winning formula?

Although Cats may have endured largely unchanged in terms of its staging, the same cannot be said of its music. At an early stage in its career the ballad of Billy McCraw sung during the play-within-a-play Growltiger’s Last Stand was jettisoned, and apart from the initial cast album it has hardly been heard since. Here it was restored, not altogether to advantage since it was one of the weakest elements in the original score (although Kurt Gänzl in his Musical Theatre on Record describes it as “delightful if difficult”). Apart from this, there is hardly a weak number in the show, although the spoken chorus The Naming of Cats causes real difficult in synchronising the words of the individual performers, no more successful here than elsewhere although the fault clearly lies in the unrealistic expectations of the composer. One other element in the music clearly now has a definitely ‘period’ feel in the prominence given to the electric organ, and a more imaginative approach in the employment of modern synthesisers might have helped here; but the nine players in the orchestra otherwise were superlative under the direction of Anthony Gabriele, producing a real frisson of sound in the climax of Memory and phrasing with real distinction in some of the more classically oriented passages, of which there are surprisingly many.

Lloyd Webber created real difficulties for his cast, who had with only a couple of exceptions to be superlative dancers and yet at the same time to get across the complexities of Eliot’s poetry, sometimes in declaimed rhythms at fiendish speeds. By and large the performers here rode triumphantly over these difficulties. Paul Monaghan, once over the need to characterise the roles of Bustopher Jones and Asparagus the theatre cat, showed that he had real voice (and to spare) in his rampant Growltiger. Callum Train too, as the narrator Munkustrap, succeeded in getting nearly all his words over, as did Nicholas Pound as Old Deuteronomy. The female singers too managed well in this regard, and the only performer who failed to declaim his text with ideal clarity was Filippo Strocchi as Rum Tum Tugger; his dancing was absolutely superb, but his English seemed to be causing him problems (one notes that, according to his programme biography, this appeared to be his first British stage role although he has had major success in Italy and elsewhere on the Continent). Otherwise the singers managed to ride over all problems, even when executing the more hair-raising moves on stage (and there really were some pretty hair-raising ones).

The best performance of all came from Sophia Ragavelas as Grizabella, the role originally created for Judi Dench and taken with such success by Elaine Paige in the original London production. In the first place, she sang the tricky 10/8 rhythms that Lloyd Webber incorporated into the melodic line of Memory exactly as written, and showed that the results can sound perfectly natural when delivered with conviction (Elaine Paige, and most of her subsequent imitators, persistently lengthen these bars by performing duplets in 12/8). Ragavelas also made Memory into much more than simply an interpolated song, delivering the text with real drama (and an acceleration into the middle section) while summoning up reserves of power for the final peroration. This was a really superb display of dramatic and musical art.

The performance continues in repertory at the Wales Millennium Centre for two weeks until 9 August, and then proceeds on tour to Bournemouth, Torquay, Birmingham, Monaco and Portugal. It is well worth a visit if you have never seen Cats on stage before (and even if you have, since the performances are so good).

 

Paul Corfield Godfrey

 

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