Musical is right up Toby's alley

`Cats': The dinner theater production of the Broadway hit offers laudable singing and dancing.

March 11, 2004|By William Hyder | William Hyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

What made Cats Broadway's longest running musical was not so much its music or story as its spectacle - grotesque, colorful costumes and makeup, performers in ceaseless catlike motion under ever-changing lighting. The production of Cats running at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia provides these things in full measure.

Andrew Lloyd Weber based his show on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, a rare excursion into humor by the poet T. S. Eliot. The result is a strange marriage of styles. Eliot's verses are witty and precious; Lloyd Weber's music is written to satisfy popular taste.

As the show begins, a feline atmosphere is charmingly established: The theater is blacked out, and all the audience can see is a constellation of cats' eyes glowing in the dark.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error, a theater review of the musical Cats in yesterday's Howard County edition of The Sun misspelled the name of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The Sun regrets the error.

The action is set in a junkyard, where the members of a tribe called the Jellicle Cats gather for their annual reunion. At the end, one cat will be chosen by their leader, Old Deuteronomy, to be reborn into another, presumably better life.

Eliot's verses are not tied together by a storyline, so Lloyd Weber treats them as a series of specialty numbers. First, a chorus explains the mysterious rules governing how cats are named. Then come songs and dances introducing the tribe's cats one by one.

Among them are Rum Tum Tugger (L. C. Harden); Bustopher Jones, cat about town (Danny Tippett); Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, a mischievous duo (Matt Conner and Felicia Curry); and Old Deuteronomy (Michael Kenny).

Gus, the theater cat (Kurt Boehm) tells the others of his would-be triumphs on the stage, with an assist from Jellylorum (Tess Rohan). Then we meet Skimbleshanks, the railway cat (David James); Macavity, the mystery cat (Charles Abel) and the magical Mistoffelees (Pat O'Neill). Finally, there is Grizabella (Janine Gulisano), once the most glamorous of cats, now a bedraggled derelict, shunned by the rest.

Lloyd Weber's musicals often contain one tune intended to stand out from the rest - the designated hit, so to speak. In Cats the song is "Memory," which, in case the audience should miss its importance, is sung four times. Gulisano, gives it a moving performance.

The other cast members also display good singing voices, but Cats is above all an evening of dancing. Director Toby Orenstein and choreographer Ilona Kessell brilliantly use modern dance, rock movements and an occasional touch of ballet to depict a feline society. The performers respond with energy, roaming through every corner of the auditorium, nuzzling and swatting at each other in the manner of real cats.

The costumes (by Jane Shafer) and wigs (by Larry Munsey) are bold and striking, though not very catlike in color. For the outsider, Grizabella, the designers appropriately move outside the pattern, giving her wild human hair, a ratty fur coat, silver high-heeled shoes and drooping stockings.

A theater-in-the-round setting such as Toby's has no room for the elaborate junkyard set that designers provide when Cats is performed on a conventional stage. Dave Eske efficiently uses the few spaces at his disposal to suggest industrial detritus such as junked cars and sewer pipes.

Playgoers who appreciate good dancing and theatrical spectacle are sure to enjoy Toby's Cats. Afterward, though, they might try to find a copy of Eliot's verses. Because there is no spoken dialogue in the show, the performers have to sing them while dancing, and the words don't always come across. They're worth reading.

Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, presents "Cats" through Aug. 8. Evenings: Doors open at 6 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Matinees: Doors open at 10:30 a.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Reservations are required. 410-730-8311.

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