By Melissa Rose Bernardo
Updated July 31, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Matthew Murphy

I have a bone to pick with Andrew Lloyd Webber about Cats. For the past few days, since I saw the first-ever Broadway revival at the Neil Simon Theatre, that’s all I’ve had running through my head. And I’m not talking about “Memory,” the showstopper made famous by Barbra Streisand before Cats even opened on Broadway in 1982. I mean the almost hypnotically repetitive prologue “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats”; the jazzy, doo-wop ode to Jennyanydots, “The Old Gumbie Cat”; and the singsongy “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” (“Oh! Well I never! Was there ever a cat so clever…”). Will anything — short of the “It’s a Small World” theme song — banish these insistent melodies from my brain?

Say what you will about Cats, and people said plenty during its supposed now-and-forever 18-year original run — especially when it passed A Chorus Line as the longest-running show in Broadway history. (Cats now ranks at No. 4, below The Lion King, Chicago, and the current champ, Lloyd Webber’s 28-years-and-still-going-strong Phantom of the Opera.) Yes, the show is simplistic; after all, it’s based on essentially a bunch of letters that T.S. Eliot wrote to his godchildren (published in 1939 as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats). And it’s practically plot-free. The only mystery — which cat will go to the Heaviside Layer to start a new life? — could be solved by any viewer in a booster seat before intermission. But Cats and its litter of quirkily named felines — the hip-swiveling Rum Tum Tugger (Tyler Hanes), the vaudevillian mischief makers Mungojerrie (Jess LeProtto) and Rumpelteaser (Shonica Gooden), the sage Old Deuteronomy (Quentin Earl Darrington), the once-glamorous Grizabella (Leona Lewis, in her Broadway debut), and more — hold an undeniably beloved place in many theatergoers’ hearts.

Perhaps that’s why director Trevor Nunn, who helmed the first Cats on Broadway and the West End, has taken the unsurprising — and uninspiring — if-it-ain’t-broke approach. John Napier has re-created his junkyard set and aerobicize-ready costumes (leg warmer alert!). And Gillian Lynne’s slinky dance steps are largely intact, despite the presence of Tony-winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton, In the Heights), whose stamp is most evident in the fiery pirouette-filled Mistoffelees number.

As for U.K. X Factor winner and “Bleeding Love” singer Lewis, she sounds spectacular on “Memory.” But she looks less than comfortable, waving her arms like a wounded bird trying to fly up to the Heaviside Layer. And this is a woman who rocked out to “Whole Lotta Love” opposite Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page while suspended atop a column at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

If you know Cats, this is essentially the Cats you know and either love or hate. If you don’t know Cats, prepare for a trip back to the ’80s. And steel yourself for some overly nostalgic audience members. The husband and wife next to me — who hummed along for the entire show — were not an anomaly. C

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Cats (Broadway Revival)

  • Stage
  • Trevor Nunn