“CATS” up close and personal

“CATS” is another step by MTH Theatre into full blown productions with complete staging and continuous choreography away from their initial “in concert” performance style with stand microphones.

Before taking my seat for MTH Theatre’s production of CATS, I wondered how they would choose to mount – and then, more importantly, just how they’d pull off – a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hugely successful and well-known musical show in their small 243 seat auditorium on the third floor of Crown Center.

Well let me tell you, they pull it off great.

Yet, it is still a much less “produced” version of CATS than we’ve seen before, and presents itself quite a bit differently from the original 1982 Winter Garden production that is the fourth longest running show in Broadway history… OR its myriad national tours, which is how most of us have seen the show at KC’s Music Hall over the last 35 years.

But I found the MTH CATS to be about as entertaining, and actually in many ways to be more engaging as theatre (vs. spectacle) than the bigger mountings.

There are several reasons for the allure in this simpler approach. First, in this highly intimate venue, the dancer/singers are RIGHT THERE… and NOT fifty, a hundred, or a hundred fifty feet away. Plus, they’re mostly right at eye level with the audience and they play the show directly to us virtually the entire time, looking us right in the eye.

Second, there’s no actual fur or perky feline ears to be seen anywhere onstage. And yes, I admit there’s a little bit of an initial letdown seeing that as the show begins. I mean, who doesn’t remember being completely knocked out by the famously, stunning theatricality of the costuming and make-up in the original production and national tours?

However, I found that disappointment diminished pretty quickly, as the MTH greatly simplified make-up – plus the costuming that seemed to be a mix of “story theatre,” steampunk, and Godspell influences, by costume designer Georgianna Londre Buchanan – brought me the realization that I could actually see their expressions, and didn’t have to rely strictly on their “cat behaviors” to get the gist of each character’s attitude and story.

This was a preview performance, and so with the exception of a very few first-performance-snafus, where a performer’s body mic wasn’t on for the start of a phrase or verse, I could hear (and understand) virtually every single word being sung or spoken – something that NEVER happened in the other CATS productions. And the words, primarily from poet T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” are really clever and terrific and SHOULD BE heard plainly.

I also found that by hearing the song lyrics/poems clearly, I had a greater appreciation for just how perfect the choices were that Mr. Lloyd Webber made in composing the melodies for the different poems and characters. It all finally fell into place. (By the way, not everything in the show was written by T.S. Eliot. It was interesting to discover that the most famous song, “Memory” – while based on brief Eliot phrases – had its actual lyrics written by Trevor Nunn, CATS’ co-creator and original director. Who knew?!?)

The ensemble of 14 dancer/singers (including a surprise song by music director Jeremy Watson) were uniformly terrific. I particularly enjoyed the performances of the cast members who played Grizabella (Elizabeth Reece), Old Deuteronomy (Ron Lackey), Rum Tum Tugger, Skimbleshanks, Demeter, Bombalurina, and Jemima. Unfortunately, the program didn’t delineate which actor was playing which role (except the two noted above), and I couldn’t specifically identify them from their bio photo, so I’m afraid I cannot cite the specific performer’s names for the above. Mea culpa.

Director Tim Scott did a fine job adapting CATS for the MTH venue, giving the show a seamless pace, and selecting his appealing cast very well for their particular role. The choreography by Kenny Personett was crisp and exciting, and as always, Jeremy Watson did an exemplary job leading the five piece orchestra… which was occasionally supplemented by cast members joining in on flute and viola.

Despite the fact that I was attending the very first performance, which could properly be called a Preview, the show ran seamlessly except for a couple minor sound and light cues, which I’m sure are already fixed.


MTH Theatre at Crown Center
Runs June 7-24, 2018 (Reviewed Thursday, June 7, 2018)
MTH Theatre at Crown Center
Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd #301, Kansas City, MO 64108
For tickets visit http://musicaltheaterheritage.com/

The cast of CATS at MTH Theatre. Photo by J. Robert Schraeder.