'Cats' as fresh now as when the show was a kitten

The success of "Cats," if you were lucky enough to have an orchestra seat on the aisle Tuesday, could be boiled down to the moment Mr. Mistoffelees stepped lithely down from the Belk Theater stage to wend his way among the crowd.

He paused and sniffed the air. He made that peculiar feline dip of the head accompanied by a side-to-side glance, like a radar dish swinging around. He went up on the balls of his feet, ready for action. The tiny black lines on his face wrinkled like whiskers as he gathered information. And at that moment, he ceased to be an actor playing a cat and convinced us he really was a cat.

Like many of the players in this 30-year-old musical, he looked to be under 30. Perhaps the show needs youth to keep it perpetually young. But the national tour was so precisely and enthusiastically executed that even someone watching "Cats" for the fifth (or was it sixth?) time could see it afresh.

The plot is as slender as a starved tabby's tail: This is the night of the Jellicle Ball, and patriarchal Old Deuteronomy (clarion-voiced Nathan Morgan) will choose one animal to ascend to the Heaviside Layer - literally so, in a little blinking spaceship - to be born again.

T.S. Eliot, who was a Christian, posthumously supplied the Tony-winning lyrics from poems collected in his "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." But the musical isn't a religious allegory. It's a look at the frailties and foibles of felines, mostly lighthearted but occasionally sentimental.

The show has two surefire musical climaxes: "Growltiger's Last Stand," performed with bravura hamminess by Bronson Murphy, and the once-ubiquitous "Memory," sung affectingly by Kathryn Holtcamp as weary Grizabella.

But the smaller moments that run up to those big ones are just as moving. Murphy grips us first as palsied Gus, the theater cat remembering his glory days as Growltiger, and Holtcamp melts hearts long before she belts the big finish.

In fact, the production is full of such crucial minutiae. (Credit tour director Richard Stafford, who has worked on "Cats" for 25 years.) All the performers create unique personalities and think every moment about how and where to move.

Zach Hess makes a charismatic narrator of Munkustrap, Matthew Taylor an outrageous rocker of Rum Tum Tugger - like Mick Jagger, he speaks the lyrics as much as he sings - and Chris Mackenthun a puckish acrobat of Mistoffelees. Yet before or after their showy turns, they're always deep inside their cat selves. Check out Louie Napoleon, the nimble Skimbleshanks, when Deuteronomy mentions caviar and Strasbourg pie: His lips quiver.

Those cat selves aren't always pleasant. I wonder now whether original director Trevor Nunn even liked cats: His interpretation, which Stafford preserves, stresses their casual cruelty, unbridled egoism, even two-facedness. (They all spurn Grizabella, until the venerable Deuteronomy approves of her. Then they start stroking her tail and kissing her hands.)

Perhaps the key to the show comes in the final number, "The Ad-Dressing of Cats," when Deuteronomy and Eliot remind us, "You've learned enough to take the view/That cats are very much like you."

We've been watching ourselves for the last 160 minutes: sometimes good-natured or wise, but more often vain or selfish or naughty or thoughtless. No wonder human performers and the feline parts they play blend so seamlessly!

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