‘Cats’ dazzles up an old favorite on tour at the National Theatre

I not only saw this show on press night; I am going back two more times, both in full Jellicle costume. Thus begins my unbiased review.

For those unfamiliar with Cats, it’s is a musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the majority of the songs are T.S. Eliot poems that poke fun at cats’ egos by suggesting they are indeed as haughty, aristocratic, talented, and/or magical as they seem to think they are — put to music. The show, which initially deterred investors, became the longest-running musical both in London and on Broadway and a phenomenon that established a global market for musical theater and changed the aesthetics, technology, and marketing of the medium and industry.

Lauren Louis as Demeter, Chelsea Nicole Mitchell as Bombalurina, and the company of the 2021–2022 national tour of ‘Cats.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy, Murphymade.

There was also a movie adaptation in 2019 that was very bad, which made a lot of people think that the musical was also bad. The reasons Cats had such a defining influence on musical theater, being such a quintessentially stage-based piece of art, are the same reasons it failed as a film. The movie fundamentally misunderstood the musical. This show is not that movie.

The current U.S. tour has been publicized for its all-new lighting design by Natasha Katz, new sound design by Mick Potter, and new choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler based on the original production’s choreography by Gillian Lynne and direction by Trevor Nunn. What are the big takeaways from all the newness that you’ll remember after the show?

Instead of those multicolored lights that extend from the stage into the venue and flash during the overture that you may have seen in previous productions, there’s a contraption that almost resembles a jumbotron with 15-ish giant blue spotlights attached that descends from the ceiling. During the overture, the blue spotlights project wildly around the theater, and after the overture, the contraption ascends back into the ceiling. The vertical movement and the flashing lights put the audience through a sensory experience that creates the feeling that you’re being shrunk to the size of a cat, totally selling the suspension of disbelief so crucial to seeing this show. Maybe you’re not becoming a cat — the “Man Over There” line is still present and as wonderfully jarring as ever — but you’re at least cat-size.

The company of the 2021–2022 national tour of ‘Cats.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy, Murphymade.

Also notable with the new choreography are plenty of new props, especially in “The Old Gumbie Cat” — they roll a huge clockface across the stage now — and in “Bustopher Jones” — the cats carry little plates of food to him, and he has a gigantic napkin bib that reads like a tablecloth. There is extensive new choreography for numbers including Mr. Mistoffelees” and “The Old Gumbie Cat” that are just enchanting and joyous to behold. There is also a new brief — like, 30-second — number about Macavity near the end of Act I that I have never heard before and took me totally off guard. It serves to introduce some exposition about the character’s whole deal (beyond Demeter traditionally yelling “Macavity” in between numbers a couple times) that maybe ties the show together a little better — yeah, it sort of does.

Besides the excellent new lighting, sound, and choreography, there were minor issues with some of the actors’ vocals. In moments, Nora DeGreen’s singing as Demeter and Sam Bello’s singing as Sillabub felt tonally mismatched to their musical moments: belty when a moment required seductiveness, or ethereality, relative to each character’s prime moments. Further, while Kade Wright’s physicality and dancing were spot-on as Munkustrap, his vocals were occasionally off. Hank Santos was also sometimes off-key as the Rum Tum Tugger and didn’t always project, but his boisterous, lovably self-consumed physicality as the iconic Elvis-as-a-biker cat made any issues with his vocals a nonissue.

The company of the 2021–2022 national tour of ‘Cats.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy, Murphymade.

Cats is at the National Theatre through Sunday, and I implore you to go. Plenty of musicals are about issues we humans have to deal with on a regular basis, like broken bones (Dear Evan Hansen) and armed insurrections (Les Misérables). But what shows tell us about the things cats have to deal with on a daily basis? That’s what I’m saying.

Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes, including one intermission.

Cats plays through January 22, 2023, at the National Theatre located at 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($65–$135) are available online or by calling the box office at (202) 628-6161.

The cast of the North American tour of Cats can be found here.

COVID Policy: Masks are strongly recommended but not required for all ticket holders. For full COVID protocol, go here.