‘Cats” collected horrible reviews and was a dog in attendance over the recent holidays.
But in defense of Tom Hooper’s film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical, I don’t think it was as cat-astrophic as the critics alleged.
Cats have nine lives, as the saying goes. “Cats” the musical has survived a barrage of bad reviews before, when it first opened a run at the Winter Garden in 1981 on Broadway, yet became the longest-running musical on the Great White Way in its time.
Its troubled past, and turnaround at the box office, included a group of “Cats”-haters from the get-go. As a film, it was originally envisioned by Steven Spielberg as an animated version. Hooper (“Les Miserables”) took over the reins and was challenged to give new life to the feline phenom based on T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”
The naysayers maintain “Cats” has no plot. To the contrary, it does, but only a minimal one, about alley cats deciding who, among them, would earn the honor to go to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn. Old Deuteronomy, the Yoda-like sage, would have the final say, and the movie lives up to this.
“Cats” — play or film — is all about the dancing and the differences among the Jellicles, with competing cats strutting their stuff as if they’re candidates for “America’s Got Talent.”
Hooper has gender-switched in casting the respected Judi Dench as Deutoronomy. The change is refreshing; while Dench is not a singer, she delivers her lines with confidence and authority. Her delivery of “The Ad-Dressing of Cats,” in the finale, is poetic and powerful, punctuating the rituals of the Jellicles, and worth a visit to the cinema just for that.
This “Cats” is star-struck. James Corden as Bustopher Jones is memorable and tongue-in-cheek, like a showman in prime time. Taylor Swift, as the seductive Bombularina, contributes and collaborates with Lloyd Webber on a lone new song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” (she’s heard over the final credits). And Ian McKellen, as Gus (short for Asparagus), the veteran theater cat, earns his stripes with his British charm.
However, Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, the aging glamor cat who delivers the soundtrack’s key song, “Memory,” is a major disappointment, with improper and overlong purring. While she’s a hot name, she’s not convincing for the big farewell. I wish the project signed on an actual “senior” warbler, like the original Griz, Betty Buckley, or perhaps Liza Minnelli, who’s still got pipes and has lived six or seven cat lives to date.
Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots, bloated in her furry splendor, is a visual fat-cat joke here; in Busby Berkeley tradition, there are synchronized dancing mini-cockroaches, and she grabs a few, eating ‘em. Yucky.
Victoria (ballerina Francesca Hayward) is a newbie, allegedly an abandoned kitty, and delivers unquestionable grace and grandeur. She does an abbreviated version of “Beautiful Ghosts,” reaching out to the seemingly disoriented Griz early on.
Some things work wonderfully, like the opening Jellicle ball number; with alternating screen close-ups, singling out the cat singing which lines, something not discernible in a stage outing.
Ears twitch and tails wag, so the faux fur is given a semblance of reality.
Some characters are memorable; Steven McRae, from the Royal Ballet, does wonders as a tap-dancing Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat, and the cat-burglar twosome, Danny Collins (as Mungojerrie) and Naoimh Morgan (as Rumpleteazer) are mischievous sorts. Jason Derulo as the show-offy Rum Tum Tugger is fun to watch.
On the other hand, some elements are annoying and bewildering. “Cats” always has been a sung-through caper; here, there are brief dialogues between talking cats. While stage actors wore gloves with cut-off fingers, these cats have hands and feet instead of paws and claws.
The story is set in London, instead of a nameless alley, and since the film takes excursions into the community, there are ample exteriors of Brit life and sights, including Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, and Trafalgar Square, along with storefronts and show placards boasting such meow-y signage as Milk Bar, “The Cat and the Canary,” and yes, obviously “The Mousetrap.”
In the end, if you’ve abhorred the notion of a whole show of singing cats, you’ve already written off “Cats.” If you’ve enjoyed the concept from the get-go, you’ll find some catnip here. Wait for the DVD release to revisit your favorite memory. …
Our grandnephew, John Rhoades, who has been living in our household since his grade school days, is shipping off to Georgia tomorrow as a new Army recruit. Many local show biz troupers have seen him grow up, since he’s accompanied us to a multitude of performances over the years. He’s been saying his goodbyes to Auntie Loretta (Ables Sayre), Uncle Audy (Kimura), Uncle Frank (De Lima), Auntie Fran (Kakugawa), and Papa Jack (Thompson) and Puna Cha (Thompson) these past few weeks. They’ll miss him, and so will we, as he embarks on his journey serving Uncle Sam. …
WHEN YOU’RE A JET
There’s an island face in the cast of the new “West Side Story,” now in previews en route to a Feb. 6 opening at the Broadway Theatre. He is Daniel Ching, a 2010 grad of the Mid-Pacific School of the Arts, playing a member of the Jets. He previously was part of the First National Tour of “Hamilton,” and is a Juilliard School grad. “West Side,” directed by Ivo van Hove, features new choreography by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. …
And that’s “Show Biz.”
Wayne Harada is a veteran entertainment columnist. Reach him at 266-0926 or firstname.lastname@example.org.