Grizabella (Jennifer Shrader) confronts kitty mortality in Cats.
  • Curtis Brown
  • Grizabella (Jennifer Shrader) confronts kitty mortality in “Cats.”

NC Theatre
Through Oct. 13

When I was a kid, my parents used to read me T.S. Eliot’s poems from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats; as a teen, I owned a best-of-Andrew Lloyd Webber CD before I got into more Sondheim-y composers.

And yet, I had never seen Cats, Webber’s massively long-running staging of Eliot’s poems, until NC Theatre’s production at Duke Energy Center’s Memorial Auditorium.

The reason was simple: By the time I was old enough to go to stage shows myself, I had already experienced countless parodies of Cats on various TV shows (most notably Chris Elliott’s immortal “Zoo Animals on Wheels“) and had already built up a firm prejudice against Webber’s play. It didn’t help that it looked like a cross between the trauma-inducing kids’ show Zoobilee Zoo and my preferred brand of cat-people, the kind who battled Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living.

But it is one thing to judge by reputation, and another to judge through actual experience. So, I attended opening night determined not just to review Cats, but to understand what has made it both the second-longest-running show on Broadway and a perpetual punch line for theater pundits.

The first thing I noted was that Eliot’s wordplay and subtle commentary on the corollaries between human and feline behavior is not exactly an ideal fit for the more-is-more production style of Cameron Mackintosh, the Jerry Bruckheimer of musicals (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera). The sprawling junkyard set provided by FLCO Music Theatre, and the garish spandex-and-fur costumes from the Kansas City Costume Company, give the sense that whatever you’ve paid for the ticket, NC Theatre at least sunk every penny back into putting on the show.

There’s also a full set of colorful felines constantly in motion, doing all manner of Cirque du Soleil-level flips and fancy footwork, is also a bang for one’s buck. And then there’s the infamous moments where the cast heads out into the audience, thus ensuring that you get a good look at the cat makeup for yourself.

Assuming you aren’t blinded by the Day-Glo spandex and/or traumatized by the visits to the audience, you might start to notice that this show doesn’t really have a plot. There’s a vague through-line about the elder Old Deuteronomy (Ken Prymus, who was in the “Suicide is Painless” sequence in the original M*A*S*H film) deciding which cat will be reborn into a new life (don’t cats have nine already?). Will it be the enfeebled and disliked Grizabella (Jennifer Shrader), who performs the show’s most famous piece, the non-Eliot ballad “Memory”?

Ah, “Memory.” Lovely when performed by an actress of range and projection; deathly when mutilated by endless aspiring actors, lounge singers and elevator music. This was a part of the show I knew already, and Shrader pulls it off. However, I was a bit puzzled by how little the rebirth plot, and Grizabella herself, figured into the overall show. And I was appalled by how the whole thing ends with a literal stairway to heaven.

Were not sure what this is, and we were there
  • Curtis Brown
  • We’re not sure what this is, and we were there

I found myself enjoying the numbers that stuck more to the simple narratives of the original poems without adding too much bombast. For example, you can get through the whole opening song and still not understand what the hell a “Jellicle Cat” is (it’s a simple mispronunciation of “dear little cat” in the poems). Whatever my perception of the Rum Tum Tugger (Thay Floyd), I didn’t expect him to resemble the love child of Marc Bolan and Sun Ra.

Likewise, I never envisioned the criminal cat Macavity (Joe Moeller) in orange spandex painted with hell-flames, but there’s always an artistic license that comes with symbolic representation, I think, maybe.

When all the stuff with reincarnation and feline ballet is out of the picture, there’s a nice, simple quality that can be quite charming. The Mungojerre and Rumpleteazer number (with Will Porter and Amanda LaMotte as the respective tongue-twisting troublemakers) is a nifty little soft-shoe piece, while the second act gains considerable energy and poignancy from Dirk Lumbard as “Gus, the Theatre Cat,” who enacts the pirate tale “Growltiger’s Last Stand.” It’s a goofy bit that still has some of the wit of the original Eliot lines. Likewise, the jazzy “Macavity” is a playful take on a playful poem, but the whole hell-demon symbolism is a bit much.

My feelings on Cats remain conflicted. On one hand, I can see where the spectacle and raw energy captivate audiences—credit the direction and choreography by Richard Stafford and the music direction by Edward Robinson for keeping pace with the intricate sound and movement required by the production. Yet, while I appreciate the elaborateness of the show, I kept wishing that about half of it was on the chopping block, that there was a simpler Cats that just acted out a few of the poems for kids and didn’t try to cover up its plot holes with dance numbers and glitter.

There was a nice moment at the end of the evening, though. The couple sitting alongside me expressed their bewilderment at what they’d just seen. They took my advice to check out Eliot’s poems, which were conveniently for sale at the lobby’s souvenir stand. Perhaps, like many a musical-theater snob, i will never fully comprehend Cats. But it’s nice to know I’m not alone, and that for all the spandex and all of the actors’ horrific ventures into the audience, it’ll at least get some people to experience Eliot’s work.

Well, that’s one more pop-cultural black hole checked off. I’m still not sure about reading 50 Shades of Grey all the way through, though.