Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
March 28, 2014
Some call it a Meowsical , but I say it’s a revue. “CATS” has all the elements of the form that’s also represented in “The World Goes Round,” playing at Moonlight Stage Productions while the feline fun-fest is presented by San Diego Musical Theatre.
Both have character songs but no characters, no discernible narrative arc, and one number that courses throughout, though the title tune of “The World Goes Round” has a lot more general relevance than the ubiquitous “Memories,” which only applies to grizzled Grizabella . Another link between the two productions: Debbie Prutzman , who similarly and effectively sniveled through her Grizabella moment at Moonlight five years ago.
Given its dramatic limitations, I’ll never understand how “Cats” got to be the second longest-running musical in Broadway history. The makeup and costumes, choreography and dancing are great. But that’s all there is, folks. One unit set – an uncredited, detritus-filled junkyard – and no story. The lyrics, of course, comes from a master, Nobel Prize-winning poet T.S. Eliot, and his “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” published in 1939. Fifty years later, Andrew Lloyd Webber turned his childhood favorite into a musical, and the rest is… inexplicable history.
Under the assured direction of James Vasquez, the current production is skillful, if long, at 2½ hours. The 16-piece orchestra is superb and the cast is excellent, with notable performances by lynx-like Liz Daniels, charismatic Cody Walker, balletic Arielle Meads, swaggering Justin Ray, vocally robust Kūrt Norby , and young Dylan Hoffinger , in his knockout Mr. Mistoffeles solo, with its endless turns and leaps. Cat-hounds rejoice.
But for my musical-revue money, I’ll take a show like “The World Goes Round,” which focuses on the creators rather than the spectacle. The indelible songs of composer John Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb are smart, sassy, and filled with genuine sentiment, not sentimentality. The duo penned immortal musicals like “Chicago” and “Cabaret,” as well as non-blockbusters like “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Thirty terrific songs are performed by a talented quintet of singers. There are sarcastically hilarious numbers like “Class” from “Chicago” and “Arthur in the Afternoon” from “The Act”; heartfelt ballads of love and loss, like the poignant pairing of “Sometimes a Day Goes By” from “Woman of the Year” and “I Don’t Remember You” from “The Happy Time.” Then there’s an unexpectedly jazzy, Manhattan Transfer-like arrangement of that life-affirming anthem, “Cabaret.”
Elan McMahan’s musical direction and accompaniment are fantastic, and David Engel’s direction adds pizzazz, though the women’s costumes are unflattering, and on opening night, the onstage steps seemed to unnerve the performers, one of whom was also suffering from vocal strain.
In this show, the spectacle is in the marvelous melodies and clever, warm-hearted lyrics. To my mind, that’s when a good revue is truly the cat’s meow.
“And the World Goes Round” runs through April 6, at the Avo Theatre in Vista.
“Cats” also continues through April 6, at the North Park Theatre.
©2014 PAT LAUNER