Who would have thought that T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," a collection of children's poems written almost half a century ago, would provide the inspiration for one of the hottest musicals of the 1980s?

Surely not the esteemed poet himself. But they did.

Now, with six years of staggering success on the London stage, five banner years on Broadway (where the show garnered seven Tony awards), and several worldwide tours to its credit, "Cats" has finally found its way to the San Diego Civic Theater.

No road show ever completely lives up to the Broadway version. But this "Cats" suffers from having been chopped down to traveling size. Compacting the set and toning down the lighting effects robbed it of much of its physical grandeur and eye-popping visual power.

The oversized pieces of flotsam and jetsam that provide a cat's eye view of an urban alley no longer sprawl clear across the house, transforming the entire theater into a wonderland of overturned garbage pails, abandoned tires, and other discards from humanity.

Now, the decor is confined to the playing area, and the sharply raked stage that made life so devilishly difficult for the dancers (and so exciting for the audience) in the original production is as flat as a board.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, the musical wizard who masterminded "Evita," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and Broadway's newest bombshell, "Starlight Express," fashioned a wondrous score for the poems he has fancied since childhood. And the orchestra on hand for Tuesday's opener realized all of his intentions.

John Napier's magnificent tie-dyed cat costumes were as splendid as ever, even if some of his scenic designs were not. Unfortunately, without the multilevel environment that served as a launching pad for Gillian Lynne's choreography, most of the cats were grounded, instead of leaping from their perches in the garbage heaps.

But this "Cats" still has plenty of room for feline-style cavorting. And on opening night, local aficionados got a taste of the theatrical power this show can pack.

Big production numbers, such as "Growltiger's Last Stand" --an ensemble piece teeming with sea cats--give Webber an opportunity to poke fun at the opera, the Vegas-style variety show, and even overblown rock 'n' roll superstars, and all that came through loud and clear in this staging.

There were some lapses in unison work among the ensemble on opening night, but the individual cats were quite irresistible. And, as usual in a show ripe with possibilities for stellar performances, several deserve special mention.

Jeffrey Clonts, as Gus the shabby old theater cat, gave a touching rendition of "Asparagus," then shed his tattered coat to relive his glorious days in the limelight in "Growltiger's Last Stand." Clonts had another chance to shine earlier in the show as Bustopher Jones, the likeable and "unmistakably round cat."

Jack Noseworthy and Nancy Melius made a merry romp of their gymnastic duet, slinking through the crawls and stretches of the crafty cat burglars. Richard Nickol's Old Deuteronomy was as appealing as any, especially when he gave his witty treatise on "The Ad-Dressing of Cats." Kevin Winkler was nimble and high-spirited enough to make his shenanigans with Skimbleshanks a delight. And General McArthur Hambrick did well in all three of his separate cat personas. Steven Bland's hep cat was another highlight.

Mistoffelees, the clever conjurer cat, has the most taxing and enticing dance solo in the show. But from the moment Eddie Buffum made his mysterious appearance from on high, he was at home in the role. Lightning quick turns and athletic leaps were child's play for this fleet-footed dancer, and he earned the generous ovation he received Tuesday night.

Donna Lee Marshall sang the biggest show-stopper, "Memory." Her first attempt at the bittersweet ballad fell short of the heart-wrenching paean to old age it should be, but Marshall was much more successful in her reprise, delivering the show's signature piece with a strong voice and plenty of passion.

Ironically, "Memory" is the only song that doesn't use one of Eliot's verses for its lyrics, but it would be difficult to imagine "Cats" without it. Credit the show's clever director, Trevor Nunn, for the lyrics, and for the uncanny insight into his cat characters.

Although "Cats" has no formal plot, it's much more than a series of musical non sequiturs with cats as the central focus. The stray cats in this particular alley on this enchanted evening have assembled for a special purpose--to await old Deuteronomy's choice for extraterrestrial redemption. This framework holds the disparate parts together nicely, and "Cats" moves like the wind.

Its whistle-stop stay in San Diego will continue through Sunday. However, many performances of the long-awaited musical extravaganza have already been sold out, so San Diego "Cats" fanciers will have to make tracks to snare a seat. It was standing-room-only on opening night.

"CATS" A musical based on T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," at the Civic Theater. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Words by Eliot, arranged and amplified by Trevor Nunn. Director Trevor Nunn. Designer John Napier. Associate director and choreographer, Gillian Lynne. Musical director Janet Glazener Roma. Orchestrations by David Cullen and Webber. Sound design, Martin Levan. Lighting design by David Hersey. For this production, orchestrations by Stanley Lebowsky, lighting by Raymond Huessy, choreography reproduced by T. Michael Reed and Richard Stafford, direction reproduced by David Taylor. With 8:00 p.m. curtain times through Saturday, matinees at 2:00 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, 3:00 p.m. on Sunday.

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