About thirty minutes south of Los Angeles, out on what the Los Angeles architectural historian Reynor Banham called “The Plains of Id”, you’ll find the welcoming La Mirada Theater for the Performing Arts and its current production of the musical “Cats”. The show is a co-production with McCoy Rigby Entertainment which is busy with this show and a number of other theatrical productions scheduled for 2014. The production which opened on April 19th is scheduled to run through May 11th. It includes a cast of both Equity and non-Equity performers.   

“Cats” needs no introduction. It has superseded in name recognition T.S. Eliot’s fanciful collection of poetry, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”, that the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber used as the libretto for the musical. It is an odd twist that the headiest of the twentieth century’s modern poets should have a musical book to his name, but its irresistible whimsical qualities have continued to charm both audiences and succeeding generations of performers since its opening in London’s West End in 1981. It has stayed continually in production in touring and regional productions for more than thirty years both in the U.S. and abroad.

This MCCoy Rigby Entertainment production with its boisterous cast of “Cats” veterans and younger talent generally fared better in its singing and staging than in the quality of its dancing. Layering the dancing with sequences and movement “reprised” from previous incarnations on Broadway and London’s West End, choreographer Dana Solimando’s direction at times felt overloaded. This was especially true in the conventional tap section from “The Old Gumble Cat”. Her “Jellicle Ball” opened promisingly but became burdened with too much action. Billy Johnstone also collaborated on the direction and choreography. Other production numbers were gratuitously decorated with the overexposed tumbling runs which have become de rigueur for the SYTYCD generation. The show, while acknowledging its roots, has lost some of the intimacy and detailed style that characterized earlier productions. No matter where your musical theater tastes lie, the entertainment and spectacle value of this “Cats” struck a responsive nerve with an enthusiastic opening night audience.

Happily the singing, especially in the principal roles, was exceptional. Clent Bowers as Old Deuteronomy was soulful and pure of voice in his aching high register. Keli Provart found the fragile abandoned heart in the well-loved “Memory”, the stand alone song for her character, Grizabella. That character and her touching story line, which form the heart of the musical’s only real narrative, were not part of Eliot’s original collection of poems. Also excellent were Neil Dale and Madison Mitchell in their poignant duo for “Gus, The Theater Cat”. While the singing from the You Tube personalityTodrick Hall (Rum Tum Tugger) mostly just sufficed, it also showed that a voice designed for pop can sound one dimensional in the world of musical theater. The chorus was generally excellent in supporting the soloists, as well as in the challenging song and dance sequences and in the beautiful Act II a cappella music for “Journey to the Heaviside”. The cast was backed by a capable fourteen person pit band filled out with three keyboard players. The musical direction was by John Glaudini. Audio design by Josh Bessom provided a beautifully balanced, dialed back sound.

I mentioned earlier that the La Mirada Theater has a welcoming environment. The theater also has excellent technical chops. I won’t spoil the brilliant Act II scene “Journey to the Heaviside” stagecraft, but if big theater is what you’re looking for, this show delivers it, credit technical directors and designers David Cruise and Jean-Yves Tessier with a striking vision all around. 

(Eliot’s book of poems, written during the 1930’s, was not published until 1939. As was the case with literature and music by many noted British writers and composers (e.g. Elgar, Britten, Grahame, and Carroll) their works were originally created as family entertainment, particularly for children. Gillian Lynne, created the original “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera” choreography. She was a dancer with the WW II era Saddler’s Wells Ballet in London. She eventually had many roles in British film and television before establishing a choreography career.)

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