Webber's divine feline musical returns as lively as ever

June 17, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

"Cats" opened on Broadway more than a decade ago with th boastful slogan, "Now and Forever." And indeed, not only is it currently playing its fourth Baltimore engagement, but it's still running in New York, where the greatest proof of its legendary status may be the fact that three of the season's new hits -- "Angels in America," "The Sisters Rosensweig" and "Jeffrey" -- include references to it.

So how is the legend holding up on the road (where, incidentally, it has set the record as the longest continuously touring musical in the history of American theater)? Judging from the production at the Lyric, it's still the cat's meow.

Admittedly, the junkyard set seems to be shrinking a little with each tour, but just about everything else about this production glitters asbrightly as the illuminated cats' eyes that create the opening image.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's score, which uses lyrics taken from T. S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," remains one of the most diversified and melodic by this melody master. Although there's a thin plot concerning Old Deuteronomy's selection of a cat to be honored with a new life, the show is essentially a revue. You might think of it as an all-singing, all-dancing cat catalog, and this company's tightly knit orchestra and acting ensemble display the items in that catalog with flair.

David Hibbard is appropriately larger than life as strutting, scene-stealing Rum Tum Tugger, a feline Mick Jagger with a hint of Elvis. As Old Deuteronomy, Jimmy Lockett lives up to his Biblical name; his deep, rich, sagelike voice sounds the way a small child might imagine the voice of God.

However, as Grizabella, the faded glamour cat, Mary Gutzi verges on the histrionic, both in her initial gestures and when she reprises the hit song, "Memory," which she belts and even shrieks in a manner that has apparently come to be expected by audiences, although it is excessive for a cat supposedly near death.

Whether you're a "Cats" repeater or that increasing rarity, a first-timer, it's fun to see Jennyanydots (Alice C. DeChant) leading the cockroaches in a tap-dancing tattoo, or Gus, the theater cat -- played to comic effect by Buddy Crutchfield -- reliving glory days when he portrayed the pirate, Growltiger.

And, in a show with its share of special effects, one of the chief scenic delights remains the clever simplicity with which the chorus assembles a locomotive out of junk to accompany Skimbleshanks (Carmen Yurich), the railway cat.

But let's be realistic. How much longer can "Cats" keep going? Well, now that there's a cat in the White House, there may be renewed interest -- not that interest has exactly flagged (the show has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide). Careful observers may notice that one cat at the Lyric does look suspiciously like Socks.

This could be a politically updated, recent addition, but even without it, this slick production suggests that "Cats" still has plenty of lives left.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Cats"

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday; matinees 2 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $25-$47.50

Call: (410) 625-1400

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