Cats is the fifth longest running Broadway show. It is about a group of felines called the Jellicles. They all have vibrant personalities and quirky reputations, like Rum Tum Tugger the flirt, and Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, who are a crime duo. All the Jellicles have gathered for the night of the Jellicle Ball, where the patriarch Old Deuteronomy will decide which Jellicle will go to the Heaviside Layer, their version of heaven. Cats is comprised of high energy musical numbers which serve to introduce the characters to the audience and for the characters to entertain Old Deuteronomy. Cats is written and composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and is based on the 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Elliot.
A celebrated part of Cats is the set design. Tacoma Musical Playhouse’s production lives up to this. The set is designed by Dennis Kurtz and Jon Douglas Rake, and it is a junkyard backed by a fence and the moon. The set is made bigger so that makes the actors look smaller, and more cat sized. At stage right, there’s a Kleenex box that looks about a foot tall and in the center of the stage is a Quaker Oats canister that looks two feet tall. Another unique part of the set is how many places there are for the actors to lounge around. At any given moment, actors are sprawled around the edges of the stage, doing their best impression of cats and functioning almost like a congregation. Although it’s a static set, Tacoma Musical Playhouse has maximized its use by making it an optical illusion that shrinks the actors into cats and also a dynamic space for the Jellicle Ball.
Some stand-out performances are that of Kawika Huston, who plays Rum Tum Tugger and Harry Turpin, who plays Asparagus. Rum Tum Tugger is a beloved character in Cats and Kawika Huston exudes the confidence needed for the character. I don’t think many people can come off as seductive while in an airbrushed leotard but Huston does just that. Asparagus is a frail old cat who takes pride in his acting career, specifically in his role as Growltiger the pirate. Asparagus, played by Harry Turpin, is led reluctantly to center stage to tell the story of Growltiger. His humbleness and the care that Jellylorum and other cats show him endeared the audience on opening night and received two rounds of applause.
Something that can’t be ignored is all the actors’ devotion to their roles as cats. When they’re hanging around the junkyard, they’re luxuriously stretching, pretending to groom themselves, or playing with each other’s tails. They’re exhibiting feline behavior that is uncanny to see humans imitate. When Grizabella first appears, some actors put out a shaky hesitant paw before scampering away, the way real cats size up something that seems threatening. This realistic behavior contrasts with all the human behavior going on, like hip thrusting and dancing and gymnastics. As someone watching Cats for the first time, the combination of human and animal behavior felt uncanny and made it hard for me to enjoy the musical.
After Cats (2019), I had the impression that it’s something people either love or hate. Tacoma Musical Playhouse’s Cats was my first time seeing the musical and I wanted to love it so bad. The costumes were my initial hurdle in enjoying Cats. Everyone is singing, dancing— sometimes tap dancing— in skin tight leotards. I can’t tell whether you’re supposed to oogle the combination of leotards and leg warmers or not. The combination is effective at making the actors look like cats, but it also looks bizarre. It’s important to note that this is standard procedure for a production of Cats. The problem is that I was wholly unprepared for it. It’s not you, Cats, it’s me.
Campy pieces of media like Cats require a certain kind of understanding. During my viewing, I think I couldn’t look past how absurd everything was, from the costumes to the concept. In hindsight, I realize that Cats is supposed to be overstimulating and absurd and generally plotless. You’re supposed to just marvel at the chaos. My advice for firstcomers to enjoy Cats is to suspend your disbelief and see it as more like a fantasy come to life, like Alice in Wonderland, instead of seeing it as a group of humanoid cats.
Cats deserves credit for just how mind boggling it was. I get the feeling that what confused me about Cats is what others love about it. So if you’re interested in seeing Cats, I would recommend it. If you love the absurd and the fantastical, you will be delighted. At the very least, you’ll witness something spectacular and one of a kind.
Cats, Tacoma Musical Playhouse. 7116 Sixth Avenue, Tacoma, WA 98406. November 24- December 17, 2023. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM. Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 PM.