On Theater: 'Cats' still mesmerizes after all this time

Having enjoyed feline companionship for the past two decades, I always get a kick out of Andrew Lloyd Webber's megahit musical "Cats" each time it stops by the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

It's back again — for the eighth time, albeit for an abbreviated run, through Sunday — and its unique appeal hasn't been dimmed by age or familiarity. In fact, some aspects of the touring show are more impressive than ever.

Paramount among these is its ensemble showmanship. Director Richard Stafford has built on the original direction of Trevor Nunn and the choreography of Gillian Lynne and infused it with a throbbing immediacy that enriches the show's concept.

That concept, fashioned around T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," uses the poet's prose as the book for Webber's electrifying musical score. These cats break through the fourth wall and interact with the audience — with one young lady in the front row becoming a dance partner in one upbeat number.

But the centerpiece of "Cats," as always, is its Grizabella, no matter now brief her time on stage.

And in this latest incarnation, the producers have unearthed a true gem in Melissa Grohowski. As the tattered and worn "glamour cat," Grohowski presents a brutally fragile image before bursting into a superior rendering of the show's signature number "Memory."

Another memorable performance, in a dizzying dance number, is turned in by Chaz Wolcott as the mystical feline Mistoffelees, who reaps applause long before his segment is finished.

Christopher E. Sidoli shines in three characters, his highlight being the melodrama star Growltiger in a swashbuckling presentation.

The dynamic duo of Mungojerrie (Daniel Switzer) and Rumpelteazer (Hillary Porter) get the show off to an energetic start once Jennyanydots (Erica Leigh Hansen) warms the audience up comically. Chris Stevens' Rum Tum Tugger is another visual treat, as is Louie Napoleon as the nimble railroad cat Skimbleshanks.

Nathan Morgan presides over the annual congregation of "Jellicle cats" as Old Deuteronomy, who will select one of their number for a trip to the "heavyside layer" and a glorious rebirth. This process is just one of the soaring technical achievements of Raymond Huessy, reproducing John Napier's original set design.

Musical director J. Michael Duff commands a powerful, unseen orchestra that emits a perpetual stream of Webber melodies, while Rick Belzer's adaptation of David Hersey's original lighting effects is dazzling, except when aimed directly at playgoers' eyes.

It's not difficult to imagine why "Cats" was the longest running musical ever in both New York ( 7,485 performances) and London (3,358). It's been labeled the largest single generator of jobs in Broadway history. And it continues to enrapture new audiences around the world.

Local theatergoers have just this weekend to visit, or revisit, this overwhelming musical treat at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

TOM TITUS covers local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Cats"

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Closing performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. on Sunday

Tickets: Start at $20

Call: (714) 556-2787 or go to http://www.SCFTA.org

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