‘Cats’ Has Lost None of Its Charm Over Three Decades
Ocean Professional Theatre Co. Performers, Audiences All Have Fun
By RICK MELLERUP | Jul 22, 2013 The Sand Paper
Photo by: Marty Comiskey
Ocean Professional Theatre Co.’s production of “Cats.”
In the 1950s there was a raging debate in New York City. Who was the best centerfielder in town and probably in all of baseball – Willie (Mays of the Giants), Mickey (Mantle of the Yankees) or the Duke (Snider of the Dodgers)? I have a similar internal debate raging in my head as I write this. Who was the best Grizabella I’ve ever seen in “Cats”?
My candidates are Betty Buckley, who originated the part on Broadway; Laurie Beechman, who played the part in the Winter Garden for more than four years; and Anita Hollander, who is Grizabella the Glamour Cat in the Ocean Professional Theatre Co.’s production of “Cats,” which runs through July 27 at Barnegat High School’s Bengal Auditorium, home for the OPTC during the summer.
It might seem, at first glance, that Hollander would be the first one to be tossed out. She didn’t play the part on Broadway and isn’t, like Buckley and Beechman, a household name (at least in theatrically savvy households). That would be as big a mistake as throwing Snider out of the conversation. Most baseball fans don’t consider him on the same high level as Mays and Mantle, but the fact is that he, too, is a Hall of Famer and in the Top 10 in most greatest-center-fielders-ever lists.
I haven’t personally seen Elaine Paige, who originated the role in London, but I can’t imagine Hollander not making a Top 10 list of Grizabellas. She adds a pathos to the part the others don’t (I won’t give the reason away). As for her singing of “Memory,” well, she is “of a certain age,” which helps improve the song vocally (I heard Buckley sing it a few years ago and I think she had improved since Oct. 8, 1982 – the second night of the show’s long Broadway run – when I was lucky enough to score not only a private four-person box, but the very one which she was perched on when she sang the song, just 2 feet away from me).
I cried when Hollander sang “Memory” when she was in “Cats” several years back at Surflight Theatre. I cried again on Thursday at Barnegat High School.
She’s every bit as good as Buckley, one my favorite Broadway songstresses of the past few decades and better (sorry, Laurie) than Beechman, who was a drinking buddy of mine in the early 1980s in Chelsea before she tragically died of cancer at the age of 44 just a few years later. Hollander is definitely a Grizabella worthy of a Hall of Fame.
My advice – if you have seen “Cats” before, go watch her to see if you agree. If you haven’t seen the show, go see it to be floored, not only by Hollander, but by the wonderful dancing by the ensemble and especially by Romain Rachline, who was nothing short of a whirling dervish as Mr. Mistoffelees, the Conjuring Cat.
“Cats” had become a running joke with New York theater aficionados by the time I moved from the Big Apple in 1989. It was, they said, strictly a show for tourists and “bridge and tunnel people.” I never stopped loving it, however. It is my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber show, filled with lively, fun music with a couple of poignant numbers thrown in (the aforementioned “Memory” and “Gus: The Theatre Cat”). Unlike some Webber musicals, including “Phantom,” it doesn’t have much barely melodic filler. And, once again, it is a dance spectacular, especially as directed and choreographed by Dodie Pettit, who joined the Broadway cast in 1984. I still get a thrill watching trained performers stretch into a variety of cat-like positions or perform seemingly impossible leaps, proving Shakespeare was right when he said that a man (I’ll now add woman) “is infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable … the paragon of animals!”
As for the lyrics, can you go wrong with T.S. Eliot?
Once upon a time I would have said that everybody in the world must have seen “Cats,” considering it ran for 18 years on Broadway. But perhaps some younger people haven’t (and this is a great show for kids!). So a quick review of the book may be necessary.
It can be quick, because the book is a simple one. The Jellicle Cats gather under the leadership of Old Deuteronomy (David Discenza) to determine which one can ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life. A number of candidates are introduced in song and dance, besides the aforementioned Grizabella, who in her youth was beautiful, but now you can clearly see “the border of her coat is torn and stained with sand”:
• Jennyanydots (Bailey Purvis), the old Gumbie cat who sits all day and trains mice and cockroaches all night.
• Rum Tum Tugger (Matias Stegmann), a tomcat out on the prowl.
• Bustopher Jones (Rick Grossman), an obese 25-pounder.
• Mungojerrie (Oren Korenblum) and Rumpleteazer (Becky Kalman), a pair of notorious cat-burglars.
• Gus (Grossman again), the cat at the theater door who “once was a star of the highest degree.”
• Shimbleshanks (Blake Spellacy), the railway cat.
• Mr. Mistoffolees – “never was there ever a cat so clever.”
The performers all turn in more than adequate performances, although Stegmenn’s Rum Tum Tugger isn’t the feline Elvis that the show usually features and Discenza’s baritone is nowhere near as powerful as that of Ken Page, who originated the role on Broadway. But that’s unfair because Page is one of the best baritones of the last 30 years.
Meanwhile, the sound problems at the Bengal Auditorium that were pointed out in a review of the OPTC’s last show remain, so I’ll repeat my advice from then – review the lyrics before attending so you can fill in any blanks created by poor volume.
In the end, though, there’s a lot more to this “Cats” to like than to dislike, a lot more. Once again, if you’ve seen the show before, see it again to relive the magic. And if you haven’t, well, what are you waiting for? For tickets, information or group reservations, call 609-312-8306 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.