Review: ‘Cats’ at Neil Simon Theatre

By Jonathan Spira on 20 June 2017
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In the 1980s, three European musicals came to define Broadway in a manner never before seen. The three – “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Misérables,” and “Cats” – were, in fact, megamusicals, a form of almost entirely sung-through musical drama in which the spectacle was of equal if not greater importance than the plot.

Of these three, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Phantom,” which opened in the West End in 1986 and on Broadway in 1988, is the longest running show in Broadway history with over 12,000 performances. It is followed by “Chicago” and “The Lion King” (in a distant second and third with some 8,000 performances each). The fourth longest running Broadway show is “Cats,” also by Lloyd Weber, ran from 1982 through 2000 and was revived in 2016.

All told, “Cats,” which vows to be with us “now and forever,” has had more than nine lives across the globe and fills the Neil Simon Theatre nightly with tourists from across the globe as well.

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Indeed, visitors to New York want to see a megamusical like “Cats” or “Phantom” as part of the New York experience and I dutifully brought along a family friend visiting from Ireland to experience it with me.

For better or worse, little if anything has changed in 16 years. “Cats” is still a patchwork of vaudeville-like numbers, a series of songs sung by cats mostly on the topic of cats singing songs about cats. It’s a time capsule: if you want to see what was truly bleeding edge in musical theater 30 years ago, this is clearly the place.

“Cats” itself is based on T.S. Elliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” which introduced the word “Jellicle” in the poem, “The Song of the Jellicles.” If you’ve never heard of a Jellicle cat before, have no fear: it’s derived from an attempt by the poet’s infant niece to pronounce the words “dear little” as in “dear little cat.”

There’s very little plot but there is waitress service in the theater and Jellicle Juice (Malibu rum, Strawberry Sucker, and Mountain Dew) is one of the signature drinks available.

Set in a junkyard and complete with a levitating tire that’s become an iconic prop just like the chandelier has to “Phantom,” “Cats” isn’t a great show but it is great entertainment. While I missed Betty Buckley’s Grizabella from the original show, little else has changed, and it’s an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours in a fantasy world resplendent with felines.

Jellicle Cats come out to-night
Jellicle Cats come one come all:
The Jellicle Moon is shining bright –
Jellicles come to the Jellicle Ball.

—T.S. Elliot


Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
New York, N.Y. 10019
Runtime: 2 hours 20 min.

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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