Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: T S Eliot
Director: Trevor Nunn
Choreographer: Gillian Lynne
Reviewer: Malcolm Wallace
There is no doubting the enduring popularity of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s feline dance musical. Considered to be a huge risk when it premiered in London in 1981, no one could have predicted that it would sustain a run of 21 years in London and 18 years on Broadway. Continuing from these successful productions, the show has been consistently produced around the world and now embarks on another UK tour fresh from its second acclaimed West End return engagement.
The premise is the meeting of cats for the Jellicle Ball where they perform to Old Deuteronomy in the hope of being chosen to be reborn into a new life. It’s the book that lacks a strong narrative here, which is a drawback for the production, particularly in Act 2, which drags a little; there is also far less dancing than in Act 1, which is blessed with the brilliant Jellicle Ball sequence.
Trevor Nunn’s direction takes a back seat to Gillian Lynne’s choreography which is the greatest asset of the musical and is shown off in this production to a high standard in the main, although there are a few moments that appear under-rehearsed and not as slick as they need to be.
John Napier’s junk yard set design is brilliant, although I suspect scaled back somewhat for touring, and his costume designs have stood the test of time changing little from the original 1981 incarnations. The show is lit with a stunning lighting design by David Hersey.
There was a reliance on a star name to sell the recent West End productions at the London Palladium, featuring Nicole Scherzinger and Beverley Knight, however, there is no such reliance here. The large cast is full of hugely talented singers and dancers, although at the times the sheer physicality of the production presents obstacles that they do not always necessarily overcome.
As an ensemble piece, it is hard to pick out certain performances but worthy of a mention are Joe Henry and Emily Langham who make the most of their song and dance duet Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. Sophia McAvoy is infinitely watchable as the White Cat while Shiv Rabheru almost steals the evening with his number Mr Mistoffelees.
In a recent rewrite, the Rum Tum Tugger is now a rap and, while this number jars with the style of the production and feels out of place, Marcequelle Ward overcomes this and wins the audience over with his warmth through the latter part of the evening.
The musical builds towards the big Act 2 number Memory made famous by original Grizabella the Glamour Cat, Elaine Paige, and subsequently recorded by almost every female singer of note. It is a shame that Anita Louise Combe, a veteran musical theatre performer with stacks of experience, fails to live up to expectation. While she has stage presence in abundance and her expressive sadness pulls at the heart strings, she chooses to shout her big number rather than actually sing it and this demolishes any sentiment attached to it and rather reduces the intended emotional impact.
The small band, led ably by Musical Director Tim Davies, could benefit from a few more live instruments. The string sounds are obviously synthesised and there is a real need for some brass to flesh out the sound. There are also times when the band are simply over amplified and this results in the loss of some lyrics, particularly during chorus numbers.
It feels that press night in Manchester was still a work in progress and with a few more performances to bed in and iron out a few issues the production will improve immensely. It is just not quite there yet.
Runs until 13 February 2016 | Image: Contributed