CATS at the Ritz: The Mystic Heart of the Universe Revealed

by Terry Stern

The cast of CATS at The Ritz Theatre in Oaklyn, NJ. (Photo credit: Chris Miller)

Largely based on his volume, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, T.S. Eliot’s assumed name, Old Possum, never made it into the 1981 musical adaptation of his whimsical work. But more of his original draft characters made it onto the stage than into the published volume, and for this we are thankful. Grizabella the Glamour Cat was cut from the book of verse but revived in the musical. Lucky for us. She is the one who delivers the now classic “Memory”, the masterfully stirring anthem of faded glory and the most well-known song of the show.

So let us start with her. As Grizabella on the Ritz stage, Colleen McGinnis provides two of the most beautiful and compelling of the production’s elegant panoply of high points with the delivery and reprise of that song. Both, superbly acted as well as sung, grabbed then melted every heart in the place.

But it is not for her substantial talent that Ms. McGinnis gets first notice here. The measure of the cast is that she is very strong but not a stand-out. They’re all charismatic singers and dancers. She gets mention because she has the only two numbers in the show which spotlight solo talents so singularly. The others are ensemble. And, if this production shines anywhere, it shines most brightly in its ensemble work.

I may have heard some to match, but I cannot now recall a more heavenly and transporting sound than the full company of Jellicle cats in four-part choral glory singing with the wholly engaged orchestral music on that stage in that production that night. I don’t know that I’ve ever cited a vocal director in a review before. Clint Williams offers me a first. Thank you, Mr. Williams. Truly magnificent blending.

Uplifted by sensuously acrobatic dances arranged by choreographer/ director Dann Dunn as well as mysterious, half-shadow night alley lighting by Chris Miller, the effect is to pull the audience into the souls of these beautiful creatures being presented on stage. You become a cat draped on a warm window sill raptly listening to and gazing at the stage whereupon resides the mystic heart of the universe. It is a remarkable show.

The show is music and dance. To an unbroken sound track of orchestral music, we hear Eliot’s words sung as we are introduced to a series of dynamically quirky cats known, as a group, as the Jellicles. The term “Jellicles”, by the way, is Eliot’s version of a distortion in dialect of the phrase “dear little cats”. It is not a breed.

We hear their world-view, their victories, their disappointments, their memories, their rituals. And when the touching, rousing gritty song comes to its natural end, the movement naturally begins and the pure, joyous physicality of the cat soul is revealed in the dance.

There is no dialogue, character development or clear plot line. We meet the Jellicles gathered for their yearly ball. There is a sub-story about the abduction and restoration of the Old Deuteronomy, the Jellicle’s leader–sung and given fine physical nobility, strength and grace by David M. Rooney. There is the ascendant transformation of Grizabella’s passing into another Jessicle life.

But story isn’t important in this play, introductions are. The heart of the play is in learning about Skimbleshanks and watching the train he lives on reproduced in alley trash by the cats and chugging around the stage in the second act. It’s watching Lindsy Mauck as Jennyanydots bust a dynamite number with a chorus of tap-dancing cockroaches. It’s Corey Wade Hundorf’s Rum Tum Tugger strutting and stretching his absolute, arbitrary contrariness. And it is Ryan Blackson’s magically blinking Mistoffelees producing the missing Old Deuteronomy just like he “pulled seven kittens out of a hat,” as the song says.

The revealed heart of the tale is the personality and society of the cats, and this is served to us with style and clarity by a very talented cast and crew.

It isn’t a perfect production. I consistently found the digital music too loud, sometimes obscuring the singers. And the dark, mysterious lighting was at times too dark and mysterious. I occasionally wished for more light on the principals. But these shortfalls are minor in comparison to the joy and power assembled on the stage. They are insufficient to deny the trim fitness and triumph of this work.

CATS marks the opening of the Ritz Theatre’s 27th season in Oaklyn, N.J. A success story by any measure, the Ritz is the best sort of community theatre in that it is rooted in and heavily integrated into the community it serves. The number of its outreach and educational programs is inspiring. It leads the way in consideration of handicapped theatre patrons. It is an outstanding manifestation of the artistic strength and depth of South Jersey.

And, happily for us, it insists on a high standard of performance technique from its young actors, almost all of whom are on their way into the theatre world. The spirit of the place is palpable on entrance. These folks are happy to be together, happy to be working in theatre, happy to be at the Ritz. They are happy about what they do, it shows, and we’re all better for it.

Interestingly, Ritz founder and Artistic Director Bruce Curless never intended to open a theatre in Oaklyn. In fact, he had another site in the bag for the arts center he envisioned. It fell through due to a less than noble zoning decision. Dejected, Mr. Curless happened to pass the closed Ritz property and, on an inspired whim, looked into it.

The Ritz had originally been a vaudeville/movie theater. It played that fare until 1947. But by the 1980s, fallen into disrepair, it was a porn house. When Bruce Curless proposed reopening the theatre, the owners were ecstatic until they learned he didn’t want to show porn there. Then they weren’t so sure. Innovative change was not their strong suit.

Luckily for us, Mr. Curless and crew talked them into it. Twenty seven years later we have a South Jersey theatrical institution and a testament to an unrelenting commitment to make art work for everyone.

Based on poetry by T.S. Eliot
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed and choreographed by Dann Dunn
January 12-February 11, 2012
The Ritz Theatre
915 White Horse Pike
Haddon Township, N.J.

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