CATS, the 4th longest-running show in Broadway history, visited Hong Kong last January, 2018. Being also the 6th-longest running West End show, the rise of so many contemporary musicals continues to challenge its existence.
Hong Kong is one of the countries that hail performing arts at its fullest. Collaborating with the HK Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA), CATS ran from January 6 to February 11, 2018. The Lyric Theatre, HKAPA welcomed performing artists and spectators alike. CATS earned recognition both from the Laurence Olivier Awards and the Tony Awards. But how did they do it with just a single back drop?
Ever heard of the famous song, “Memory”?
Cats opened in the West End releasing this song as one of its originals. It was first performed in 1981. Learning, achieved after a personal familiarity gets connected to its source. I didn’t realise that this lingering song in my head since I was young was from this very production.
You’re probably congratulating the idiot in me. (Raising up a white flag on that.) Don’t worry, the feeling is mutual.
So basically, both Cats and I have been born in the same year.
As it rises above to Broadway catering to nearly 500 people in its first year.
It, being a hit after a successful single year in the West End, and me claiming the second place among my siblings. 1982. And now it’s 2018. You do the math.
Ironically, that year was the Year of the Dog as CATS takes its claim to being one of the classics the world had fallen in love to.
The song gave me a Ratatouille moment in bringing me back childhood mementos. I didn’t expect that the musical itself will give a whole new light within me as I listened emphatically, understanding the story of the Jellicle cats. Their purpose and their traditions.
The story ignites from the announcement by the Jellicle tribe leader, Old Deuteronomy. A particular cat would be chosen to be reborn into a new life at the Heaviside Layer that night after the Jellicle Ball. Although fictitious, the story speaks of volumes because of the cats’ roles, their attitude and their aspirations. From each cat’s introduction, I realise the part they play somewhat resembles some of the people I know. Even myself.
Featured in solo and group performances, the cats shared their story through a song. Moreover, dancing, being the most important element of the show, was added dramatically to highlight the Jellicle cats’ story. I was in awe to see their phenomenal flexibility and hear them sing high tones while holding themselves on a perfect V-up.
While performances happen, some need to hold straining poses. Each cat performance ranges from 2-4 minutes the least. Their grace in holding the lingering poses are surely challenging to the muscles that are not properly trained. And seeing all of them deliver to the production itself, their commitment to the craft reaped a standing ovation.
Apart from Old Deuteronomy, whose role was more of an old big cat that sat on a pedestal higher than the rest of the Jellicle cats, all of them owned a lean, slender body frame. Their movements range from sticky paws to quick reactions to conform to the flawlessly thought choreography. Interestingly, it showcases the magic between catty portrayal and humanly attributes.
My opinion goes as far as: if Luigi, being the Father of Modern Jazz, would be watching Cats, he might feel Cloud 9 beneath his feet to see his dance style wildly executed, yet performed with full control by these cats. So far, this is the musical that took my breath away from beginning ’til the end.
This deserves a special mention because musicals that I saw had to change the stage’s back drop once or twice in between acts and scenes except CATS. As one of the cats discovers a human being witnessing the truth about the Jellicle tribe in ACT 1, it automatically brought the audience into an intimate setting where cats are usually seen together as a group, into a junk yard. I thought that was such a powerful hold keeping the audience motivated to pursue the intent of the ‘storytelling’ even if there’s no change in the set.
Its smart designer, John Napier, captivated the audience through scaled images of the usual things we see in the backyard. Trash can, used tires, used toothpaste even and disposed vehicles were put together to give the Jellicle cats its play ground, dance floor and meeting place. It draws you in their lair right at the moment you enter the theatre and it involves you in an instant as they show their sanctuary traditions and secrets one by one.
The wackiness of the stage setup compliments the variety of costumes and make up each cat was designed to act with. Highlighting what kind of cats they are, their attitude and what they are compelled to react to and resist is individually distinct. Each facial make up is specific for each cat. Costumes were designed dancer-friendly with its impeccable outlook. Flirtatious, fun and quirky.
I can’t help but feel privileged to be able to watch this. It is one of the classics that you shouldn’t miss. The elements that made this production are timeless and effective that it can still be applied to the modern ways of holding new ones. ‘Cats’ own prowess in its ability to do storytelling, one of the most effective ways of capturing an audience. With familiarity to the identities each cat possesses, it makes the entire show more than interesting. They tell our story, the ones that we can’t and won’t…. with a purr.