Cats at the Saenger Theatre through December 19
The first time I saw Cats was on New Year’s Eve about seven months after it debuted when I was visiting London with friends. The hottest show in town then, I only got my ticket after repeated visits to a brokerage agency–fortunately, somebody had returned one. The atmosphere in the theater crackled with excitement, and even the cast seemed buoyant beyond words to be in a show that differed from anything else ever seen before and promised to run “now…and forever”.
I saw it again with my family a year later on Broadway not long after it opened and enjoyed it all over again (though I did have reservations about some of the changes that had been made for the trans-Atlantic crossing); a big hit, it would go on to win numerous Tony Awards including Best Musical.
After a few years, however, Cats had become a bit of cliche, the butt of jokes in such shows as Six Degrees of Separation. I wouldn’t see it again till 2006 when Jefferson Performing Arts Society’s Summer Youth Music Theatre put on an outstanding production of it; five years later, the Anthony Bean Community Theater Summer Youth Workshop did their own, adorable version (with no less than Charmaine Neville as Grizabella).
So approaching its 40th Anniversary touring production at the Saenger Theatre , I wondered would Cats still be pretty purr-fect or, with memories of the movie in mind, a cat-astrophe?
Fortunately, for those planning to see it, whether Cats virgins or those dupli-cat-ing (sorry) a previous experience, this Cats should leave you with a grin on your face worthy of the Cheshire cat.
Granted, all the stuff about the Jellicle Ball and which cat will go up to the “Heaviside Layer” still strikes me as a somewhat contrived, tho dramatically necessary, mishigas, but what I’ve always loved about Cats (and still do) is how its book, based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, creates with crystalline specificity a vibrantly diverse community of felines. And while Andrew Lloyd Webber’s tunes remain, for the most part, as hummable and memorable as ever, this time I noticed how much his underscoring adds to the show’s somewhat mysterious atmosphere.
Granted, some of the numbers, especially the dance-focused ones, tend to go on too long (and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, based on Gillian Lynne’s original work, doesn’t really let loose till halfway thru the second act with Magical Mister Mistoffolees), and I’ll always prefer the original London version of Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer to its Broadway rewrite.
That said, overall and especially in the second act with its utterly engaging portraits of Gus, the Theatre Cat; Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat; The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and Pollicles; and, of course, the hit song Memory, Cats provides a litter’s worth full of sheer entertainment.
Under Natasha Katz’ wondrous, ever-changing lighting, John Napier’s set and costumes remain as brilliantly imaginative as ever; with what I believe is a new and definitely fabulous light-changing outfit, one number could almost be renamed Mistoffolees and the Amazing Technicolor Jacket.
Among the large cast, standouts include Michelle E. Carter as a delightfully tap-dancing Jennyanydots; Indalecio De Jesús Valentín making for a dignified Old Deuteronomy; John Anker Bow who acts out a marvelous story as that theater cat, Gus; Christopher Salvaggio as the ever-efficient, high-energy Skimbleshanks; Paul Giarratano, dazzling with balletic leaps as Mistoffolees; and Tayler Harris who brought out the pathos of the past-her-prime Grizabella with understated grace and perceptively varied the dynamics of her voice as she built to Memory’s climax. (Zach Bravo’s Rum Tum Tugger was certainly a crowd pleaser but his eponymous song never quite lives up to its promise of Mick Jaggerian attitude.)
Collectively, as the actors/singers/dancers moved with synchronized precision, the entire ensemble filled the stage with an ineffable beauty.
Whether you’re a cat person or not, if you enjoy spectacle and music and theatrical artistry, treat yourself to a purr-formance of Cats this weekend. You can worry about being naughty or nice after the curtain comes down.
For tickets and additional information, go to https://www.saengernola.com/ Up next at the Saenger is Sarah Brightman, the former Mrs. Lloyd Webber, in concert with an orchestra and choir (Dec. 21); and the Tony Award-winning musical Hadestown, inspired by the Orpheus and Eurydice myth (Dec. 28-Jan. 2).
The Nutcracker at Jefferson Performing Arts Center, Dec. 18 and 19
[JPAS’ 2020 production of The Nutcracker returns to the Jefferson Performing Arts Center on Dec. 18 and 19. Here are excerpts from my review of last year’s presentation. All dancers mentioned below will appear this year as well.]
JPAS Artistic Director Dennis Assaf was justifiably proud, excited, and a bit relieved when he stated during his pre-show speech that The Nutcracker would be the “first live theater production we’ve done here since January.” The entire audience appeared thrilled to be there and totally invested in enjoying Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet. The production, a revival of last year’s , did not disappoint.
With his traditional approach, Director Kenneth Beck takes the audience back to a world of yesteryear where women wore big dresses, guests danced a “rousing polka”, and there’s not a cell phone in sight. Beck and co-choreographer Kimberly Matulich-Beck handle the narrative portions of the opening scene well, making the relationships among the principal characters clear.
In this version, Herr Drosselmeyer, who presents young Clara with the eponymous Nutcracker, comes off as a fairly benign character as any darker overtones, which some other interpretations emphasize, are here banished. Given the many challenges facing our community today, that’s just fine.
To Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music, the choreography pleases the eye whether in large ensemble numbers or solo turns. While all the featured dancers were excellent, what truly impressed me was how accomplished and assured the children’s corps was; even the smallest ballerina dazzled and the entire group of young ones, even the teeniest, were superb in their mastery of the steps.
As E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale proceeds from the reality of the holiday party into the realm of fantasy, an elegant Snow Queen (Kate Lougon) and Snow Prince (Jorden Majeau) transported us to the Kingdom of Sweets where the narrative is mostly cast aside and we are treated to a succession of dances inspired by a buffet of international goodies like candy canes from Russia and hot chocolate from Spain, all set to some of Tchaikovsky’s most beloved tunes. In the “French Variation”, Lougon and Majeau, again provided classic balletic sculptural grace.
Following them, a baker’s dozen of adorable wee dancers emerged from Mother Ginger’s enormous skirt and acquitted themselves fabulously. With its unalloyed beauty, the “Waltz of the Flowers”, was a sheer delight to watch; its Roses’ costumes looked like they had previously adorned a Rex Mardi Gras float.
Last but certainly not least, Morgan McEwen, returning from last year as the Sugar Plum Fairy, shimmered across the stage accompanied by the dynamic Brian Gephart as her Sugar Plum Cavalier. This pair provided a level of expertise and technical brilliance that made their pas de deux especially memorable.
[For this year’s production, Kenneth Beck stated, “The dancers will not be masked, and the stage presentation will be augmented from last year, when we scaled it down to have less support staff needed backstage. The big difference is that this year, like in 2019, we will have a full orchestra playing the Tchaikovsky score.” For tickets and further information, go to https://www.jpas.org/performance/the-nutcracker-3/]
New in New York
I had been looking forward to seeing Dana H. when I would be going up to New York for Thanksgiving.
Then came the sad news that, despite rave reviews, it would be closing early, before my visit.
Then came the good news that, due to a massive increase in ticket sales, it would be staying open two weeks longer, allowing me to see it. Twas something I gave immediate thanks for. After seeing it, I was even more thankful for the opportunity to see this unique theater work.
Dana H. is playwright Lucas (A Doll’s House, Part 2) Hnath’s adaptation of interviews with Dana Higginbotham, his mother, that Steve Cosson had conducted in 2015, about her horrific experience in the late 1990s when she was abducted by a former patient of hers (she had been a chaplain in the psychiatric unit of a Florida hospital), an ex-con member of the Aryan Brotherhood with a severe drug problem. While certainly a singular, and engrossing, tale, it could easily have been the basis of a movie or TV mini-series.
Instead, in Dana H., the gifted actress Deirdre O’Connell sits in a chair on scenic designer Andrew Boyce’s drab motel room set and lip syncs the words as the audience hears Higginbotham’s actual voice from the interview tapes; O’Connell simultaneously hears Higginbotham through her earpieces which we had seen her putting on, with the assistance of a technician, at the very start of the play before she transformed herself into Dana H.
Weird? Yes, certainly the weirdest show I’ve ever seen on Broadway. But utterly fascinating. And heartbreaking as we learn of the abuse Dana suffered as her captor forced her to go along on a string of robberies; of her inability to attract any help despite repeated attempts; and how he ultimately sexually assaulted her. Perhaps even more heartbreaking is when she says that she was able to survive the ordeal better than others might have, in part, because of the emotional and physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents which girded her for a nightmare like this.
O’Connell marvelously made you believe–almost–that Dana’s words were actually coming from her mouth, so precise were her movements, even the slightest, and delicate facial expressions that included a far-off look into the distance as though to conjure up memories.
Hnath shaped the recordings masterfully; a little “ping” let you know when an edit was made to the tapes and so you became aware of the choices that distilled mere recordings into a keen artistry. Les Waters’ direction guided O’Connell to achieve maximum effect with the most minimal of efforts; he also orchestrated a powerful coup de théâtre, potently enhanced by Paul Toben’s expressionistic lighting, that I’ll not give away here.
For I hope Dana H. will eventually be performed in New Orleans and at regional theaters around the country, even the world. It’s an important story that needs to be heard, no matter whose voice is telling it.
As a friend took me to two new musicals, I’ll provide just mini-reviews of them here.
Kimberly Akimbo (playing at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20 St. thru Jan. 15), David (Rabbit Hole) Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of his absurdist dramedy with music by Jeanine (Fun Home) Tesori, features a teenage girl who’s suffering from a disease that causes her to age much faster than normal. Her family members (Mom, Dad, Aunt) are all crazy, but she strikes up a tentative romance with a nerdy (but quite charming) classmate of hers.
What I felt was a bit over-the-top quirkiness in the script when I saw Southern Rep’s 2006 production is leavened by Tesori’s zingy tunes and the addition of four other students, who face their own challenges but are relatively sane. Tony winner Victoria Clark shines as the emotionally resilient Kimberly, and if I wish that there had been just one (or two) truly memorable songs, I wouldn’t be surprised if this feel-good, yet thoughtful, show eventually winds up on Broadway.
As for Flying Over Sunset (Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, thru Feb. 6), even if someone offers you tickets, do not go. Dealing with the experiences Aldous Huxley, Clare Boothe Luce and Cary Grant had, individually and collectively, while using LSD in the 1950s (when it was still legal), it was a gigantic bore despite performers and a design team who did all they could with the drek they were handed. ‘Nuff said.
Better, much, to spend your time exploring exhibitions at some of the City’s museums.
The Metropolitan Museum has Surrealism Beyond Borders (thru Jan. 30) which shows how that movement bubbled up far and wide beyond the Western European/American realm of such well-known Surrealists as Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, René Magritte & Giorgio de Chirico as it traveled and morphed across geographic boundaries. With over 100 works from every continent (except Antarctica) on view, the exhibit borders on overwhelming but it provides a wonderful introduction to artists you may not be familiar with such as Hernando R. Ocampo (Philippines), Samir Rafi‘ (Egypt), and Remedios Varo (Spain/Mexico). Best of all? Czech director Jan Švankmajer’s short film The Flat which epitomizes the dreamlike nature of surrealism.
While at the Met, be sure to visit its new permanent Afrofuturist Period Room, Before Yesterday We Could Fly. Using Seneca Village, a 19th-century community of predominantly Black landowners and tenants that flourished just west of the museum, in what is now Central Park (in 1857, to make way for the park, the city used eminent domain to seize Seneca Village land, displacing its residents and leaving only the barest traces of the community’s existence), as a jumping off point, the exhibit rejects the notion of one historical period and embraces the African/African diasporic belief that the past, present, and future are interconnected. As such, older objects intermingle with contemporary art to produce a unique, kaleidoscopic design vision that’s wildly imaginative and curatorially cutting edge.
Further uptown, at the Guggenheim Museum, Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle (thru Sept. 5) gives an overview of the Russian painter’s career in reverse chronological order as you head up the museum’s circular ramp. Not realizing how you were supposed to approach the exhibition, I started at the top and made my way down, and so enjoyed his earlier, figurative work before he moved into abstraction which is not my glass of vodka. For Kandinsky fans, tho, this is a major event.
In Midtown, two exhibits less than a mile apart, showcase very different artists and types of art. Both, tho, offer visual delights.
At the Morgan Library, Van Eyck to Mondrian: 300 Years of Collecting in Dresden (thru Jan. 23) focuses on the Kupferstich-Kabinett’s drawing collection which was established by Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony, in 1720. Sure, you can see worthy works by marquee names such as van Eyck, Holbein, Rembrandt, and Rubens, but I especially enjoyed making the acquaintance of a number of fabulous artists new to me including Urs Graf (Swiss, c. 1485-1527/28), Tanzio da Varallo (Italian, c. 1582-1632/33), and Carlo Maratti (Italian, 1625-1713) as well as some nonconformist East Germans whose creations had been suppressed by the Communist authorities.
Fotografiska New York, a branch of the Swedish photography museum, opened two years ago at 281 Park Avenue South, between 21st and 22nd Streets. I love that it stays open every day until 9pm allowing for a post-dinner visit. For my first time there, I saw Andy Warhol Photo Factory (also thru Jan. 23) which features his Polaroid portraits, photo strips, gelatin silver prints, and stitched photographs, including many rare and never-before-seen ones. How can you not enjoy a show that gives you candid glimpses of such Warhol friends as Dolly Parton, Grace Jones, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat (in a jockstrap no less). I especially liked one of Halston, Martha Graham and Liza Minnelli as my mother had worked for the famed designer and, when I would visit Mom, I’d occasionally see those icons in his grand atelier.
In the Meatpacking District, Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019 at the Whitney Museum (thru Feb. 20) “foregrounds how visual artists have explored the materials, methods, and strategies of craft over the past seven decades” which, it seems to me, could describe lotsa exhibits. Whatever. Some highlights of this smorgasbord of a show are Claes Oldenburg’s Giant BLT (Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato Sandwich); a towering trinket-encrusted throne by Pepón Osorio that pays tribute to a shoe shiner named Angel, whom the artist frequented for years; Liza Lou’s life-size Kitchen which has to be seen to be believed as every surface of it is covered with small beads; and grand larger than life-size works by Simone Leigh and Viola Frey.
But perhaps the most unforgettable show that I saw was something I just stumbled upon when I was in Chelsea. Robert Gober’s “Shut up.” “No. You shut up.” at Matthew Marks Gallery (522 W. 22 St., thru Jan. 29) features haunting window-like vitrines and a hanging jacket within which a hothouse waterfall babbles over twigs and moss-covered stones. Magical.
Let’s hope 2022 will be equally magical.