Theater review: Joanna Ampil's 'Memory' makes 'Cats' worth watching again

Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 26 2019 03:33 PM

A scene from 'Cats.' Handout

MANILA — Now is perhaps the best time to catch Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical phenomenon “Cats,” which is making a return to Manila after making its much-delayed Philippine premiere in 2010.

Just days ago, a new trailer of the star-studded film adaptation was released ahead of its December opening. Billed as a joyous holiday offering, “Cats,” the movie, is bound to change, positively or negatively, now and forever, how one views the stage musical. Despite its success (the original production of “Cats” ran an astonishing 18 years on Broadway), critics and audiences have always been divided about its merits. 

For one, “Cats” lacks a juicy plot to naturally draw the audience. Based on a collection of poems by T. S. Eliot set to Webber’s synthesizer-heavy score, “Cats” is more of a variety revue featuring the different cats vying for the chance to be reborn. As such, it tends to be repetitious and rather pointless, a style-over-substance ‘80s extravaganza of tights and leg warners.

But if one can go past that, “Cats” is also undeniably spectacular. This particular UK touring production is based on the recent revival, which while retaining much of the winning elements of the original, made key tweaks which helped improve the pacing (notably, that tedious bit about Siamese cats was cut out).

John Napier’s junkyard set (check out that license plate) has become as iconic as the barricades of “Les Miserables” and provides a striking playground for the anthropomorphic cats prancing around. The set now seemed more orderly and compact as if Wall-E swept in but, by and large, it's still as magical as ever, like when they recreated a train onstage for the “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” number.

A scene from 'Cats.' Handout

The centerpiece of this set remains the large tire that rises above the stage, while leaving behind a trail of smoke like some space ship. But no longer does a veritable stairway to cat heaven descend from the rafters; now the cat chosen to be reborn simply flies away to the Heavyside Layer, which is undeniably more awesome for the audience, especially the kids.

While “Cats” is nothing more than a song-and-dance cycle, it does boast of many wonderfully hummable tunes and outstanding choreography. Much of Gillian Lynne’s signature dance moves have been retained, particularly in the enthusiastic opener “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats.” But there were also notable improvements, like the reenergized “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer” number with its acrobatic moves. “Mr. Mistofelles,” which is one of those Webber tunes that you can’t shake off, has also become a showcase for the exuberant classical dancing of Harry Francis with his many turns and leaps, not to mention, actual magic tricks.

From tap to ballet to Bob Fosse-like slinky, sexy turns, “Cats” might be better off touted as a dance musical with its variety and precise execution. This company of terrific triple threats are nimble on their feet, can create tight harmonies in those heavenly choral numbers, and convey varying expressions despite their perfectly designed makeup.

Joanna Ampil as Grizabella in 'Cats.' Zeus Martinez Photography

But then there is “Memory,” that rare Broadway tune that successfully crossovered to the pop charts, covered by the likes of Barbra Streisand as well as singing contest hopefuls. The Filipino lyrics were once again revived for this leg that drew polite applause as expected. Lea Salonga was called up to play Grizabella nine years ago, and this time, another Filipina is playing the part of the once glamorous cat rejected by her tribe. 

Joanna Ampil has played this role in the UK and European tour of the musical and she brings much-needed real drama to the entire musical. (Sorry, Gus the Theater Cat.) When she sings the final reprise of the song, with that powerful modulation, it was a piercing cry, bursting of pain and regret, that more than made up for the musical’s pretentious meanderings.

This production of “Cats” doesn’t just make us relive the memories of 2010 (or whatever year you first saw this musical). With that one number, it gave us a new memory to remember for a long time.

"Cats" runs until December 1 at The Theater at Solaire.