Dogs and cats “all must, like undertakers, come to dust,” sings the shaggy Old Deuteronomy in “Cats,” but he’s lying.
The musical itself seems to be immortal. Not content with being one of the longest-running Broadway hits ever, with a global gross in the billions, “Cats” is now making its debut at the Kennedy Center Opera House. It runs through Oct. 6, newly energized, powerfully sung and flashier than ever in this touring version of the 2016 Broadway revival.
Does the news make you cheer or sneer? Either way, you’re in good company. If you love “Cats,” this production won’t let you down. If you’re “Cats”-curious, it’s unlikely to win you over. For a show that begins and ends with feline fascination and goes nowhere in between, “Cats” is oddly divisive. It’s hated for lack of plot, a grandiose and oversynthesized Andrew Lloyd Webber score, zombie wigs and more belly stripes than you’ll ever find in nature.
But “Cats” is loved for all the same things, plus the moonlit spectacle — and most especially for those seriously bendy bodies in their skintight catsuits.
Love it or hate it (I wobble, with my umbrella, right in the middle), “Cats” deserves respect.
The musical brought theater magic to the people. “Cats” is to Broadway what “Treasures of Tutankhamun” is to the museum world. Like that mid-1970s exhibit of funerary artifacts, “Cats” is a pop-culture milestone, the ur-blockbuster helping to usher in an era of inflamed fandom, unprecedented attendance and gift-shop riches.
Landing on Broadway in 1982, “Cats” carved out a role in our cultural imagination as a measure of what the arts can achieve as far as appealing to the masses. The musical is grounded, after all, in the literary prestige of T.S. Eliot’s cat poems. Then there’s all that big music, the sleek but eye-catching costuming, the evocative back-alley design. And through it all, dancing is king. Specifically, ballet dancing, brilliantly devised by Gillian Lynne, the former Sadler’s Wells ballerina. (Andy Blankenbuehler of “Hamilton” fame choreographed the current version based on Lynne’s work.)
Lynne streamlined ballet into a look that is recognizably feline, and with every move, the cast members embody it. She gave “Cats” what few other musicals have now: a style.
Although “Cats” doesn’t succeed as a great musical, it succeeds as a projection of style. The style is established in the dancing and in all the gestures and movements, and it spreads to the actors’ carriage and even, to some extent, to their singing, where crisp enunciation mimics hissing. This musical elevates style to a decisive standard of expression that unfolds and develops throughout the show.
Bob Fosse, of course, could do this (think “Chicago” with its knife-sharp precision and tension), as could Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille. Their shows were shaped all the way through by their unique physical expression of the themes and tone of the show and by their personal preferences and idiosyncrasies. Blankenbuehler, who gave “Hamilton” its hip-hop-infused, of-the-moment kinetic drive, is their nearest heir as a choreographer who works in a distinctive style rather than a forgettably generic one. By contrast, many musicals adopt a patchwork of borrowed movement quotes from others. (“The Prom,” I’m looking at you.) Broadway has become style-challenged.
The “Cats” style is composed largely of slinky, leggy moves, with an operatic emphasis or a jazzed-up sexiness. It’s heavy on big effects: legs kicked high, whizzing aerial turns, thrilling leaps when everyone leaves the stage at once. As Victoria, the white cat with a stretchy, gravity-defying solo, Caitlin Bond deftly handles the most classically shaped dancing. PJ DiGaetano as Mistoffelees leads the cast in a rousing electric circus, his black velvet suit flashing colored lights.
Dan Hoy puts his rich voice to good use as the cat leader Munkustrap. Keri René Fuller, as Grizabella, belts out a “Memory” to shake the walls.
But as much as the individual characters, it is the show’s style that demands attention. It’s so cohesive that the entire cast handles without strain the silky texture of the movement and the sudden, hyper-alert crouches and twitches.
As they prowl the aisles, you get a good look at the way they carry themselves, shoulders thrown back haughtily. If the menu is limited (and by God, it is — this is “Cats,” not “West Side Story”), it is wisely selective. Style is maintained.
I applaud the persistence. It’s evidence of the kind of tyrannical power true style requires.
Cats, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on the poems of T.S. Eliot. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Choreography, Andy Blankenbuehler, based on Gillian Lynne’s work; sets and costumes, John Napier; sound, Mick Potter; lighting, Natasha Katz; orchestrations, Webber and David Cullen. About 2 hours 15 minutes. $49-$149. At the Kennedy Center through Oct. 6. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.