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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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A reluctant critic finally sees Cats
And in spite of himself, he likes it
The members of the touring cast are undeniably sexy in those form-fitting suits, and they perform with mugging gusto.
The members of the touring cast are undeniably sexy in those form-fitting suits, and they perform with mugging gusto.

I waited nearly a quarter of a century to see Cats, but it wasn't for a lack of opportunities. After all, beginning in 1982 the show was on Broadway for 18 years, and it has run endlessly in various regional stagings. Cats triumphed at the Tonys, sealed the reputation of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, and more or less defined theatergoing for a generation of fans.

Which is why I skipped it. There is a perverse part of me that assumes anything that popular can't be that good, and frankly, those Cats costumes always gave me the creeps.

But a touring production is stopping at the Overture Center this weekend, and the time finally seemed right to give Cats a chance. So I did, and my verdict is:

Cats is fun.

Some part of me knew it would be, of course. But much of Webber's output is drearily ponderous, so it was a pleasure to learn that this archetypal Webber show has as a core theme not pathological obsessiveness, as in his Phantom of the Opera, and not Machiavellian scheming, as in Evita, but rather, simply, playfulness.

To be certain, there is solemnity in Webber's choosing a work of T.S. Eliot, the 1939 collection Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, as his source material. But at least that is a book of whimsical verse, and not "The Wasteland." (But a Webber staging of "The Wasteland" is starting to seem inevitable, don't you think?)

More a revue than a traditional musical comedy, Cats has only the barest outline of a plot: A klatch of alley cats assemble in a junkyard -- designed fancifully by John Napier, who also came up with those memorable costumes -- in order to win the approval of Old Deuteronomy (Philip Peterson), an elder-statesman kitty. To do that, the Cats sing and dance their way through a series of tunes that pay tribute to various of their number -- some young and energetic ("Skimbleshanks," "Mr. Mistoffeles"), others infirm or grotesque ("Gus: The Theatre Cat," "Bustopher Jones").

The members of the touring cast are undeniably sexy in those form-fitting suits, and they perform with mugging gusto. Standouts include Mark Donaldson and Joanna Silvers as Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, who perform a boisterous duet; and Wisconsin's own Dave Schoonever, a UW-Stevens Point graduate who dominates the show as Rum Tum Tugger, a sort of John Travolta figure given to thrusting his hips.

To be certain, not every aspect of the show is aging well. I am thinking particularly of the score, which draws heavily on synthesizer arrangements that doubtless sounded futuristic in 1982, but now sound more like a justly forgotten Styx album.

Another qualm: Friday night's performance saw numerous technical mishaps, including noisy microphones and a flubbed magic trick during the otherwise dazzling "Mistoffeles" performance, a showcase for the solo dancing of Ryan Patrick Farrell.

But I'm happy (and a little chastened) to report that the show deserves its reknown, thanks in no small part to "Memory," the signature ballad that, sung sweetly by Angie Smith, closes the first act and is reprised throughout the second act -- including, at the finale, a climactic reprise so forceful it made the audience gasp.

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