‘Cats,’ on stage now at Orlando's Dr. Phillips Center, hasn’t burned through all nine of its lives quite yet

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click to enlarge John Anker Bow purrs as aging actor Gus - photo by Matthew Murphy/courtesy production
photo by Matthew Murphy/courtesy production
John Anker Bow purrs as aging actor Gus

In ancient times — i.e., the mid-1980s — before I became besotted with Les Miz, the first Broadway show that I spent my own money to see more than once was Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s infamous adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s feline-focused poems. Originally honored with seven Tony Awards, this groundbreaking vanguard of the Great White Way’s West End invasion eventually fell from fashion, with the iconic immersive production abandoning its advertised promise to run “now and forever” in late 2000.

Since then, my double-CD cast recording has mostly sat on the shelf. The last national touring company of Cats that visited Orlando (over a dozen years ago) was so dire that I fled at intermission; and don’t even get me started on the CGI-soaked nightmare fuel that was the flea-infested 2019 film version. Needless to say, I arrived at the Dr. Phillips Center with the lowest of expectations for this latest tour of Cats, which is based on the 2016 Broadway revival. Much to my surprise, this time around I found myself enjoying the furry festivities more than any viewing I could remember since that magical first encounter nearly 40 years ago.

Perhaps it was seeing adorable adoptable kittens from the Pet Alliance outside the venue before the show that put me in a receptive frame of mind; or maybe it was the way the Walt Disney Theater’s impeccable amplified acoustics allowed me to understand every syllable of the tongue-twisting “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” opener, unlike the muddled mess I remembered from the Bob Carr. But I think that most of the credit for reawakening my unironic adoration for Cats must go to Hamilton choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who worked with returning original director Trevor Nunn to re-imagine Gillian Lynne’s legendary dances, adapting her trademark animalistic gestures and injecting them with fresh energy and attitude.

This production’s other MVP is lightning designer Natasha Katz, whose use of strobes and color-changing LEDs injects some theme park-style razzle-dazzle into designer John Napier’s ginormous junkyard set and anthropomorphic costumes. Nothing will ever quite equal actors crawling out of tunnels amid the audience during the overture, as they did in the original environmental production, but the glowing eyes Katz conjures from the darkness are a knowing wink to that memorable moment.

Most importantly, beyond the aesthetic trappings, this production of Cats unearthed my attachment to the essential emotional core of the show, which had been buried under decades of matted fur. Although not Actors’ Equity union members, the cast’s younger members are all dynamic performers. Athletic dance numbers featuring the Mick Jagger-esque Rum Tum Tugger (Zach Bravo) and magical Mister Mistoffelees (Paul Giarratano) electrify the audience.

However, it’s the more mature characters — especially John Anker Bow’s aging actor, Gus, and Tayler Harris’ tragic Grizabella — who truly recaptured my heart, reminding me that beneath all the family-friendly fluff, Cats is ultimately all about empathy.

The show still has all the same fundamental flaws — primarily a paper-thin plot with no real dramatic momentum — but despite my doubts, this tour delightfully demonstrates that Cats hasn’t burned through all nine of its lives quite yet.

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