Spruced-up staging puts a new face on ‘Cats’

The cast of the North American Touring Production of “Cats.” Photo Matthew Murphy 2019

BOSTON – Sometimes, as the real estate people tell us, it’s all in the staging.

The national touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats,” based on the 2016 Broadway revival, arrived at the Citizens Bank Opera House this week, revamped and refreshed..

It has been spruced up and given a fresh coat of paint, appropriate since it first debuted in 1981, hitting Broadway in 1982, and has come to Boston many times since.

The London production ran for 21 years and 8,949 performances, while the Broadway production ran for 18 years and 7,485 performances.

This tour comes on the heels of what appears to be director Tom Hooper’s failed vision for the cinematic version of the musical, which diverted sharply from the elements that have made the stage version one of the most successful musicals in history.

In the film, the costumes were added digitally and the faces of the actors are distinct.

In the stage musical, the makeup and costumes are key elements that allow the actor to fade back into the character.

Fortunately, one of the elements common to both productions is the choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (“Hamilton”), which pays homage to the original work done by the late Gillian Lynne but offers an exciting new take on the movement.

Keri René Fuller as Grizabella in the North American Tour of “Cats.” Photo by Matthew Murphy 2019

Trevor Nunn is still the director and John Napier’s sets and costumes are intact, but Natasha Katz’s lighting and Mick Potter’s sound design give an immediate boost to the production values.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that the storyline is still, well …  nonexistent. The characters are based on poet T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” which provides the lyrics for the sung-through musical, and we are introduced to them in different production numbers , from the Gumbie cat Jennyanydots (Erin Chupinsky) who “sits and sits” and reminds me greatly of my late Rag Doll cat, Daisy.

After the Jellice Cats have gathered for the annual Jellice Ball, held once a year, Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase) will eventually select a feline to be transported up to the Heaviside Layer where he/she will be reborn.

One of Eliot’s cleverest creations is Asparagus, or Gus The Theater Cat (Timothy Gulan), who has seen better times but will, over a bit of gin, willingly recall his past onstage glories trodding the boards while  lamenting the training of “these kittens today.”

Then there the rail-riding Skimbleshanks (Giovanni DiGabriele), the uber-athletic team of Mungojerrie (Tony D’Alelio) and Rumpelteazer (Rose Iannaconne), and Keri Rene Fuller as the bedraggled Grizabella – at one time The Glamor Cat —  puts her own stamp on the signature tune, “Memory.”

If you are a veteran pf past productions of  “Cats,” or have the CD, you may notice that the song “Growltiger’s Last Stand”  was cut out completely in the Broadway 2016 revival, and the UK Tour from 2017, and this tour, due to lyrics that were deemed to be racist.

It has been replaced with the aforementioned Gus playing the Rumpus Cat in “The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles.” A short refrain from “Growltiger’s Last Stand” was featured in the recently-released movie.

Perhaps the number that benefits most from Blankenbuehler’s new choreography is the joyous, dazzling number “Magical Mister Mistoffeles,” with PJ DiGaetano as Mistoffeles spinning like a top and creating magic out of thin air as the athletic Rum Tum Tugger (McGee Maddox) cavorts around him.

The number will wisely serve as a coda to the evening.

“Cats” was the first professional production I introduced my children to, and it remains a family-friendly show of the first order. There’s excitement to be had as the feline performers make their way through the aisles of the Opera House and the kids can get up-close and personal with the cast.

Just as there are “cat people” and “dog people” when it comes to picking a pet, this collection of “Cats” has its supporters and detractors. But with a $3 billion worldwide gross, it has struck a cord with many theater-goers – and cat lovers — and continues to do so.

The North American touring production of “Cats.” Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Scenic and costume design by John Napier. Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne. Lighting by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Mick Potter. At the Citizens Bank Opera House through Jan. 19. BroadwayinBoston.com.

Brandon Michael Nase as “Old Deuteronomy” in the North American tour of “Cats.” Photo by Matthew Murphy 2019