Chicago Theatre Review
Now and Forever
Cats – Paramount Theatre
What makes Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, which opened in London’s West End back in 1981 and on Broadway the following year, still such a popular show? Is it curiosity (which they say killed a cat)? The show is notable for being one of Webber’s most accoladed creations winning, among other awards, both the Olivier and the Tony for Best Musical. It’s also distinguished for its record-breaking 18-year run on Broadway. Unlike most musicals, there’s hardly a story to be found here: a tribe of cats calling themselves Jellicles compete in song and dance for the honor of being chosen by their elder, Old Deuteronomy, to be reborn to the Heaviside Layer. It’s sort of a riff on many religious beliefs while paying homage to the myth that cats have nine lives. Webber’s original score is original, enjoyable and contagious, with its blend of pop, rock, jazz, musical theatre and opera-inspired arias. Its lyrics, adapted from poet T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, are fun and evocative. Or is the show’s popularity based on a combination of all these elements?
It seems no one can get enough of this kitty-cat chorus line. Kids and adults marvel at the large cast of stunningly talented singers and athletic dancers assembled on one stage, sharing their artistry and creating such memorable characters in this feline fantasy. It’s a fun and family-oriented evening of Broadway caliber entertainment. Stage and Musical Director Shawn Stengel has cast an ensemble of 26 unrivaled area triple threats. Under his expert staging, they fill Kevin Depinet’s colorful, massively dwarfing junkyard setting, crawling, climbing, dancing, swinging and spiraling their way around and above the stage and right out into the audience. Harrison McEldowney’s intricate and powerful choreography is, of course, the center of the show and provides sheer poetry in motion. The production is peppered with awe-inspiring special effects, such as an advancing and receding moon created through Michael Stanfill’s unique projections; brilliantly illuminated by Jesse Klug, this production is a feast for the eyes. Add to this Theresa Ham’s resplendent, innovative costumes, highlighting and accentuating the dancers’ well-toned physiques, which are beautifully complemented by the makeup and wig designs by Katie Cordts and Lauren Cecil. For the ear there’s Shawn Stengel’s terrific musical direction, assisted and accompanied by pit Conductor Joel Raney and his rich, full-sounding 17-member orchestra.
In a uniformly brilliant cast it’s difficult to cite stellar performances when every member of this ensemble is a star. Rhett Guter’s Munkustrap, however, who serves as a master of ceremonies and is involved in almost every numbers, is a true standout. Singing, dancing creating a strong character, sharing the stage with other performers…this young actor always effortlessly demonstrates why he’s become one of Chicago’s leading musical performers.
A newcomer to the Paramount stage, Andy Planck, with his rich, baritone and commanding presence, makes a glorious Old Deuteronomy. Lauren Villegas is heartbreaking and stunning as Grizabella, the faded glamour cat. Her brief appearances throughout the play, during which she’s shunned by the other cats, culminates in Ms. Villegas’ brilliant performance of the show’s pullout hit, “Memory.” Both poignant and wistful, she’s matched by George Keating’s tender, heartfelt portrayal of Gus, the theatre cat who, in a flashback, relives his most memorable theatrical role as Growltiger, the pirate. Holly Stauder, who becomes better with every production she’s in, is hilarious and impressive as Keating’s leading lady, Griddlebone.
Other triple-threats who impress include Jacqui Graziano as a plump, playful Jennyanydots; Jonny Stein and Laura Savage working in tandem as mischievous lookalike kitties Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer; Sawyer Smith, strutting his stuff as a David Bowie-inspired, glam rock star feline, Rum Tum Tugger; Lizzie MacKenzie Pontarelli beautifully dominates almost every choreographed number as an elegant, snowy white Victoria; and Liam Quealy, always a happy, welcome addition to any cast, enlivens the production with his jubilant, energetic Skimbleshanks, the railway cat.
If there’s one hair ball in this production it’s that the show’s a tad too long. Leaving the confusing “Awful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles” number in the litter box would make Act I a little shorter and a lot stronger because it offers nothing to the overall show.
Jim Corti’s Paramount Theatre which, thankfully, is finally eligible for Chicago’s Jeff Awards, continuously offers the highest quality area entertainment. His productions rival the impressive Equity Broadway in Chicago national tours that originate or eventually find their way to our city, and they challenge the excellence of shows produced by the city’s local big theatre companies, as well. In this, the opening of Mr. Corti’s 2014-15 season, the cat nip and cream are flowing and audiences, especially those few who’ve never seen this musical performed before, should head out to Aurora’s beautiful jewel of a theatre and savor the wonder and joy that’s bound to be the Memory of the fall season.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 10-October 12 at the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, IL.
Tickets are available at the Paramount box office, by calling 630-896-6666 or by going to www.ParamountAurora.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.