★★☆☆☆ After 35 years, Lloyd Webber’s feline fantasy is really showing its age.

Capitol Theatre, Sydney
November 1, 2015

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is one of the grand old dames of musical theatre, but like its worn out heroine, Grizabella the glamour cat, this musical is really showing its age.

In that role, singing by far the most well known number, popstar Delta Goodrem is the headliner and biggest box office draw of this most recent Australian production. Vocally she delivers something very pleasing, provoking cat-calling rapture from the celebrity studded opening night audience as she belted out the climax of her second act reprise of Memory. However this performance seemed disappointingly divorced from the characterisation of this once beautiful but now haggard Jellical pariah. Goodrem’s bright, young voice, and slim physique, easily visible under her ragged floor-length cloak, made her account of the has-been Grizabella conspicuously dubious. Delivering a blow-by-blow replica of Elaine Paige’s iconic original, Goodrem seemed stiff, her gait wooden, and while she definitely appeared more comfortable in the second act, this still fell short of coaxing any genuine connection with this character.

There are some standout performances from the rest of the cast, notably Jason Wasley’s Old Deuteronomy, whose rich baritone was perfectly suited to the stately grandeur of this character. Brent Osborne and Dominique Hamilton are a delightfully nimble and well voiced Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer and Matt McFarlane makes a heroic and noble Munkustrap. Equally there are some superb dance performances, most impressively from Christopher Favaloro as the sprightly  Mr Mistoffelees, Holly Meegan’s tap dancing Jennyanydots and James Cooper as the acrobatic villain Macavity.

This show’s greatest triumphs are unquestionably to be found during the full ensemble dance routines, with choreography by Gillian Lynne that sweeps the audience up with a blazingly athletic display of leaps, twirls and an almost indecent number of hip thrusts. However the requirement for such are large number (32 in total) of triple threats – performers who can sing, dance and act – poses an issue of supply not meeting demand when casting this show, and unfortunately for this production much of the cast are two-and-a-half threats at best, with dancing skill trumping some extremely shaky vocals in places.

But perhaps the greatest issue with this musical is something irreconcilably endemic. When Cats exploded onto the stage in 1981 its bold, high-energy score and glossy choreography was refreshingly sleek and seductive. It was an instant hit, winning legions of fans the world over. The then 31-year-old Andrew Lloyd Webber was the enfant terrible of musical theatre and despite the quaintness of the source material, T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, this show had its finger on the pulse of the synth-heavy heartbeat of 80s pop. However, like shell suits, shoulder pads and Filofaxes, Cats was truly a product of the age and even after a rather superficial facelift last year, the music, design and choreography have stubbornly clung to the extremely dated aesthetic of the 35-year-old original.

Musically speaking there has always been much to praise about Cats. The tunes are almost unanimously catchy earworms, the pace and vitality of the music, particularly in the several lengthy dance sequences, is packed with toe-tapping vigour and Lloyd Webber has largely been able to unriddle Eliot’s wordy poetry making it far easier to absorb. Yet the outmoded midi-instruments still used throughout drag this score back 30 years. In 2014, the original creative team of Lloyd Webber, Lynne and director Trevor Nunn decided to rejuvenate this show, but some of the newly inserted additions just serve to shine an even more unflattering light on the indelible mark of the 80s. Particularly offensive is Rum Tum Tugger’s strange and poorly observed transformation into a rapping, hip-hop dancing, reggae-urban hybrid, complete with gaudy chains and dreadlocks. It’s cringingly out of touch.

The appetite for musical theatre around the world is voracious, and consequently the expectations of contemporary audiences have become exceptionally high. Lloyd Webber’s catalogue of smash hits may have ruled the roost for several decades, but an inability to keep pace with the evolution of the art form could be deadly for the musical theatre mogul.

Thanks to the growing ubiquity of fantastic fare from the likes of Sondheim, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Stephen Schwartz, the emergence of the Jukebox musical, the increasingly dominant presence of Disney Theatrical, and the global popularity of new kids on the musical theatre block, Matilda the Musical’s Tim Minchin and the creative trio behind The Book of Mormon Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, the public palate has become more discerning. Heartbreaking pathos or side-splitting comedy is easy to find in much of today’s musical theatre offering, and Cats struggles to conjure any strong reaction in either direction. Burdened with such a primitively realised score, and lacking anything powerfully visceral, this show feels conspicuously out of step with the tastes of contemporary audiences. It’s a missed opportunity that these issues weren’t addressed during the London Palladium’s 2014 reboot.

Cats is at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre until November 29, and then on tour across Australian until May 8 2016.

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