Unexpected delights from SPARC’s production of “Cats”
(a blog-only review!)
I had totally forgotten about Gus, the Theater Cat. When you think about the dance-happy, plotless spectacle that is “Cats,” you tend to remember the splashy characters: swaggering Rum Tum Tugger, magical Mr. Mistoffelees, even the evil-doing Macavity. But in SPARC’s exceptional 25th anniversary summer production, the cat that left the biggest impression on me was Gus whose bittersweet remembrances of his former fame loosened my tear ducts, thanks to a pitch-perfect performance by Michael Jones.
Gus’s scene was only one of many unexpected delights in a production that defied any belittling categorization you might bestow on the result of a summer educational program. The production values were first rate; the craftsmanship that went into the lights, make-up and choreography were professional quality; and most impressive of all, there was nary a weak link among the performers.
Finding talented young men would seem to me to be a particular challenge but “Cats” had a surprising slew of them. Adam Mincks worked an unabashed sexual strut as Rum Tum Tugger and backed it up with strong, tuneful vocals. As played by Hank Bamberger, Mr. Mistoffelees leapt and spun with dazzling grace. And Munkustrap was an engaging and entertaining master of ceremonies, thanks to Chris Adams’s confident performance and crystal-clear voice.
But even these talented actors were no match for the women when it came to delivering that pure “Wow!” factor. Every time Jane Barton (as Demeter) opened her mouth, only the sweetest melodies flowed out (here’s hoping she can take the occasional break from her fashion design studies at VCU to grace more local productions with her splendid voice). And 15 year-old Allison Thibodeau rendered a soaring, stirring beginning to “Memory” so good that you’d be lucky to hear something as well done on Broadway. Picking up the melody from Thibodeau was Emily King, who was similarly stellar. It’s hard to make as old a warhorse as “Memory” fresh again, but Emily King, one of only two professionals in the cast, infused the song with so much raw emotion, it also had me holding back tears.
The entire company proved to be lithe and limber dancers, with Bamberger and Amy Kaeberle (as Victoria) the dazzling stand-outs. “Cats” is a show that lives and dies by the dancing and, as innovatively choreographed by Pam Turner, this show had at least nine lives' worth of energy. Joe Doran’s top-notch lighting design also lent an indisputable aura of professionalism to the production.
Of course, my long list of superlatives wouldn’t be complete without recognizing the amazing talent of the man who brought it all together, director Tom Width. Time and again over the years, Width has proved his singular ability to move big casts around in appealing and purposeful ways and he certainly shines with this production.
“Cats” will never be my favorite show; the manufactured tension around both Macavity and the “Jellicle Choice” makes for an artificial plot that never really holds water and, in a bad production, barely holds one’s attention. But when done right – like SPARC’s “Cats” was – it can catch even a cynic like me unawares, turning a hackneyed trifle into something magical.