Review by Donald Ernest
Note: The production seen by the reviewer was a Cover performance, and as such the names of performers are listed accordingly
A backdrop of the night sky overlooking a derelict scrap heap sets the atmosphere for Queensland Musical Theatre’s production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, directed by emerging Brisbane Director Caley Monro. In the preshow, performers in their costumed identities flock across Bowen Hills’ Twelfth Night Theatre, playing with oversized balls of twine, hissing at aggressive gestures, and climbing across the elaborate set. All of this gives rise to the dreamlike atmosphere that maintains throughout the production. Coupled with an early and subtle insertion of complementary orchestration by Musical Director Michael Keen, Cats kicks off an entertaining night of theatrical glamour.
To describe Cats’ story is a bizarre task that has many interpretations, the most direct of which is a council of cats of varying personalities meets once a year to decide which cat will ascend to the “heaviside layer”, determined by Old Deuteronomy (Paul Fegan). Through director Monro’s guidance, which deserves distinction, the narrative of Cats is seamlessly woven throughout the production. Given that there is little in the way of spoken dialogue, the character interactions are shown through subtle gestures, facial expressions, and body language. Therein, a natural portrayal of cats in their element.
Caley Monro’s direction is an asset to Cats’ presentation, utilizing a unique set that the cast has fun exploring throughout the performance, complimented by impressive Lighting Design and layout by Tom Dodds, built upon the set by Gerard Livsey. Both complement each other perfectly, allowing for very abstract lighting states and positioning. Of particular note is the second act number Mr Mistoffelees which takes full advantage of the lighting and The Journey to the Heaviside Layer which makes the most of the sets’ intricate mechanisms. That being said, the set is one of the stars of the production, utilized to its full potential by a very resourceful director.
One of the definitive stars of Cats is the choreography, here helmed by seasoned production choreographer Jo Badenhorst. Having previously choreographed QMT’s iteration in 2019, Badenhorst has not lost anything close to a step in her work. Of particular note is the exquisitely vaudeville-esque Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (played with a wonderfully tongue and cheek energy by Georgina Walsh and Matilda MacLellan). Not only is this a showcase of both performers’ high energy agility, but also of their vocal prowess, managing to balance the acrobatic choreography with the vocally intense singing within the number.
Given the limited stage space available, the choreography does its best to work within the confines. In particular is the opening introduction of the show Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats and sections of The Jellicle Ball where it feels at times the full potential of the choreography is hindered by the lack of space able to be utilised. It is not enough to detract from the choreography’s skill and dedication.
Musical direction by Michael Keen hits on multiple fronts, in particular the impressive 16 piece band who, at times, is next to magical. Of note is the mesmerising orchestration of The Jellicle Ball, matching the high energy of the performers on stage. The vocal performances are an incredible standout, of particular note Amelia Beveridge as Bombalurina and Kelly Modulon as Demeter who, during the Act 2 number Macavity convey duelling vocal styles. Beveridge with a much more poppy/jazz style, and Modulon with a more musical theatre style vocalisation, is delivered to great effect.
At times the ensemble feels like it is overpowered by the orchestra and it somewhat detracts from what is happening on stage, but not to an overall noticeable degree. Another particular note is the duelling performances of Cat Schwarten as Jellylorum and Andrew McArthur as Asparagus (Gus). Both provide a very sweet and reflective number reflecting on past glory. McArthur exercises great vocal dynamics in the ensuing number, The Awful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles, stretching a rare pure comedic number in what is strangely a very serious production.
The cast of Cats deserves praise and should absolutely be given it. Through strong vocal performances and body language, performers such as Byron Philp as Munkustrap and Mike Lapot as Rum Tum Tugger exercise an expert grasp of personality. Lapot in particular at times echoes a Johnny Bravo-like charisma that draws the eye.
The production is stolen by two particular aspects. The first is Skye Schultz and their adjacent number Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat, which stands alone as an absolute show stealer of the entire production. As soon as the musical tones start, the energy of the second act almost meteorically skyrockets, and Schultz more than holds their own in carrying the number, which without spoiling anything makes the most use of not only the performers but also the set and props work.
The other show stealer is without question Vanessa Chuah as Grizabella the Glamour Cat. Chuah is fittingly pathetic as the tragic figure Grizabella, who though not seen largely throughout the production is unforgettable whenever she steps on stage. Undoubtedly the highlight of Chuahs performance is the production’s most memorable number Memory. With grace and emotional power behind her, Chuah portrays a painful and beautifully bittersweet character that stays in audiences minds long after the final note.
Queensland Musical Theatre’s 2023 production of Cats at times feels like it is just short of becoming the incredible show it could be, and at others fully realises its potential, sometimes within the same scene. The direction, choreography and vocalisation delivers an incredible production, and when it succeeds it absolutely succeeds. Whilst there are some faults present, they are not enough to detract from what is ultimately an entertaining and well directed production by a team with a ton of potential.
Cats will play at Twelfth Night Theatre until 21 May and tickets are on sale here.
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