- Kenny Shepard in 'CATS' at Beef & Boards.
Did T.S. Eliot, writing under his assumed name "Old Possum," imbue his seemingly nonsensical poems with philosophical, psychological and sociological meanings? Originally written as private messages to his godchildren and not intended for publication, the "Book of Practical Cats" (which left out poems about Grizabella) did appear in print in 1939, and some 40 years later became the text of the ever-popular Andrew Lloyd Weber musical.
For some, the thin plot and presentation of individual musings by a cast of men and women impersonating felines just isn't all that interesting. And it seems to me Buddy Reeder took that into consideration in the choices he has made for staging this current production at Beef & Boards.
I felt a strong sense of inter-relationships evolving as these slice of life stories went beyond actors simply preening as humans interpreting what it's like to be a cat. I was motivated to think about what seeming nonsense can awaken in us beyond kicking back and enjoying the moment, going home haunted by the melody of "Memory." After all, Eliot is the person who doted on Dante and gave us The Waste Land. Might a tinge of that consideration not be inherent in CATS?
In this production twenty-two splendid actors imbue their specific character with their personal deep-down name-meaning, which is at the heart of the poems and the musical. We get a chance to be on their wavelengths for why they are moving, miming, manipulating space in that particular way. Reeder's direction gives focus to each musical number as a mini-drama, supported by superb playing by the orchestra.
Every character is protecting physical turf and selfhood. With cats as with humans, someone's in and someone's out, someone fights to get and stay in, and someone fights to keep someone out. It takes authoritative leadership to mitigate chaos and maintain order. We see that play out as confrontation gives way to forgiveness, healing and return/redemption. Jagged aspects of memory are softened.
The superb singing, movement and miming, derring-do choreography, alluring costumes and makeup, pleasing set design and lighting, and fine sound design add to the overall delight of this interpretation of a work that's fun-filled. And the experience could even be profound if you're willing to invest some time in thinking about why the ultimate choice of Grizabella as the Jellicle Cat brings us to our feet in an affirmation of happiness.