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The Arts
May 16-22, 2007

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Feline Grace

Children's Musical Theater knows how to paws for effect in 'Cats'

By Marianne Messina

MOST THEATER about the wonders of diversity runs just deep enough to make the eyes glaze over. Ironically, the musical Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber's 18-year Broadway sensation, comes closer to celebrating different ways of being than any human-centric tale, maybe because it's just beyond the grasp of reason. The nonexistent or at least nonsensical story happens on a full-moon night when a junkyard full of "Jellicle Cats" come out for the Jellicle Ball—where the tribe patriarch "Old Deuteronomy" will choose one cat to ascend to the "Heaviside Layer."

Forget the search for allegory and symbolism in this tribute to the T.S. Eliot poems in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Webber's attraction to the material came from his "affectionate" childhood memories. And the show lives in an irrational realm, like "familiar cats," inviting audiences in by way of a formal ball, complete with an introduction of dignitaries and a climactic crowning. At Children's Musical Theater San Jose's Mainstage production of Cats, the performers, ages 14 to 20, get it, and so did the animated audience that went along for their Jellicle mystery tour on opening night.

The Jellicle junkyard of set designer Kim A. Tolman and director/choreographer Jacob Brent is a gray clutter of multilevel crates and ladders, platforms and shelves overrun in the big ensemble numbers with cats. Marquee lighting onstage and Christmas-bulb lighting festooned over the crowd run on several circuits for various blinking effects. Throughout the show, Brent, the definitive "magical Mr. Mistoffelees" of London, Broadway and video productions, has put cats everywhere—pouring over the auditorium, perching above the audience at banisters that seemed to be made for this production, creeping up and down the aisles with their deliberative head movements and cat-painted faces. The effect, as you catch alien cat moves in peripheral vision or glimpse the green glow of eyes, is the sense of otherworldly omnipresence. Both Eliot and Webber would be proud.

The production is not overloud—these are mystical cats—yet the choral pieces come out full and quite beautiful, and the dancing has a powerful cohesion, with a full assemblage of 53 synchronous cats moving nimbly in inhuman ways. One of the outstanding dance duos features two thief cats, a cute and cocky Mungojerrie (Taggart Frost) and a twinkling Rumpleteazer (Kate Kumada). Elegantly in sync, they fill their acrobatic routine with "How'd they do that?" maneuvers, like the two-man cartwheel and the photo finish, where Kumada, one leg in the air, somehow balances herself on Frost's leg.

This production has many crowd-pleaser highlights, and not just the blowout when the sore-losing, evil Macavity (David Gromik) shorts out the lights and darkens the house. During the song of Skimbleshanks (Matt Hill) the rail yard cat, Brent has the troupe of Stray Cats create an ingenious locomotive engine: cats holding a three-hoop tent forming the engine body, a parasol for its cowcatcher, with cats rotating its large wheels as two more cats swing the linkage rod back and forth. Singing of moonlight to the famous "Memory" melody, Erin Garcia, as Sillabub, echoes the wistful quality of the somberly glowing moon overhead. Fallon Nunes' Grizabella moves with the dejection her tattered coat suggests. As the former "Glamour Cat" she returns from abroad old and disheveled to be rejected by a group hiss, more subconscious than sibilant.

Opening night's well-mixed, all-ages crowd especially favored the pelvis-action, showboating Rum Tum Tugger (Joey Dippel). As he flaunts his fur cape and gyrates his metal studded belt, girl cats scream hysteria from balconies. Another crowd pleaser was the sex-kitten (big brass duet of Demeter (Cynthia Pariente) and Bombalurina (Mimi Robinson) as they kicked and sang Macavity's praises. In her debut as lead costume designer, Carol Clever leaves no slouches in the cat costume department, from the princesslike, fluffy white Victoria (Alexandra Wilson) to Mr. Mistoffelees (Kelly Black), black leotard all abristle with silver bangles during that ambitious dance in which Mr. Mistoffelees conjures up the return of the kidnapped Deuteronomy. One caveat: Don't read the program until after the show. Amazement over the ages of the featured cats (14-16) can be distracting. But their spunk freshens this bright, eldritch production.

Cats, presented by Children's Musical Theater San Jose, runs Thursday-Friday at 7pm, Saturday at 2 and 7pm and Sunday at 1pm through May 20 at the Montgomery Theater, Market and San Carlos streets, San Jose. Tickets are $14/$19. (408.288.5437)

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