Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Theater Review: Off-Broadway Is Burning as “The Jellicle Ball” Celebrates a Jubilant Drag Ballroom Culture With “Cats” as its Jumping-Off Point

Cats: The Jellicle Ball (c) Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Theater: Cats: The Jellicle Ball 

Premise: Imagine, if you will, that your cool and artistic friends have invited you to the social event of the season at a big hotel ballroom, but there’s a P.S. It’s a themed party (like the Met Gala) and the theme is Cats. Not cats as in your pet, but specifically Andrew Lloyd Webber’s huge but derisible hit musical that has lived up to its tagline “Now and Forever” but maybe not in the way Lord Andrew envisioned it. A couple of years back, there was an unremarkable Broadway revival with Leona Lewis as Grizabella, and then, of course, there was the 2019 film version that is probably the biggest flop on Taylor Swift’s resume (she acted in the movie and co-wrote a song), where the CGI cats were rendered in such a poor “uncanny valley” way that Cats’ might have finally used its ninth life. But here we are in 2024 and we get the party invite to a new revisionist version of the musical in which directors Bill Rauch (PAC NYC’s Artistic Director) and Zhailon Levingston (Chicken and Biscuits) reimagine the term “ball.” In the original, it was a yearly gathering of cats competing to be reborn, but in this production, it’s the infamous Harlem ball in which groups (or houses) of LGBTQ+ Black and Latinx drag queens in the 70s and 80s would fabulously strut down the runway in various themed competitions. This niche, underground event became mainstream when Madonna introduced “Vogue” to America in 1990, which was then followed by Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning and, most recently, re-popularized by the TV series, Pose. For “The Jellicle Ball,” each of the musical’s characters (with only the most cursory nod to the Cats theme) become houses, as in the House of Skimbleshanks, where their ALW songs become their signature theme. Along with all the young kids competing, we get respected figures of the past including head judge Old Deuteronomy (crowd favorite Andre DeShields, with a mane worthy of The Lion King); Gus, the Theater Cat, (played by the emcee from Paris Is Burning, Junior LaBeija from the House of LaBeija) and of course, the Glamour Cat (played by "Temptress" Chasity Moore as a faded Shirley Bassey), whose best days may be behind her, but maybe there’s still a flickering light in the House of Grizabella. 

Cats: The Jellicle Ball (c) Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

My Take: I have to be honest, the first 20 minutes or so of Cats: The Jellicle Ball disheartened me. What should have started with a bang, was almost crushed by its fidelity to the musical which I thought would be the first to be reconceptualized or done away with. (The Overture is performed more or less as it is on the cast recording with projected shadows of cats that could have come from any number of productions from Cats lives past. And despite the talent and energy of the cast, “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” still felt like too much Andrew Lloyd Webber and not enough Ball Culture in the struggle to dominate the Venn diagram of the show. Maybe the beginning is just too British. But then, around the time of Rum Tum Tugger (which is usually the highlight of any Cats production), the show finds its groove, and not just because of the bumping and grinding of Sydney James Harcourt, although that didn’t hurt. What the production finally introduces is queer sexuality, for if there’s one thing a ball needs to be dripping with, it’s sex. After that, the production slowly sheds itself of Cats to become the phenomenal Jellicle Ball, with a capital B, I was promised. Yes, some ideas don’t completely work (why would dancers competing against Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer have to dance to their song?), but it all starts to come together when the directors come up with much needed competition dialogue, reimagine the music (by Trevor Holder and William Waldrop) with more cat-walkable percussion, and they even add a narrative arc surrounding the thieving Macavity that fits in surprisingly well. And even though they have not solved the Heaviside Layer (is Soylent Green cats?). De Shields transforms the usually treacle “The Ad-Dressing of Cats” finale by making it into a call for tolerance and a celebration of diversity. De Shields even took a moment in the song, at my performance, to call out a very over-enthusiastic audience member, as if to say, “we see you and it’s ok.” Magical. 

Cats: The Jellicle Ball (c) Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

VIP: The cast. There are so many VIPs. I could have picked the always inventive DIY costumes of Qween Jean or the jaw-dropping choreography of Arturo Lyons and Omari Wiles. But it has to be the amazing cast of actors and dancers who can not only make you believe that you are a real ball, but also make true characters out of these T.S. Eliot nursey-rhymed named cats. Everyone has their moment to shine, but I was impressed most by the shade-giving Primo and Dava Huesca in the ensemble and the statuesque Robert “Silk” Mason as Mistoffelees in probably the best number of the show. Until the curtain call. I know it is almost cliché to make the curtain call into a dance party, but here (and only here) does it make sense, and I wish the party would keep going on, now and forever. 

P.S. I would be remiss to mention that I saw a touring production of “Cats” in San Francisco last year because my sister’s cat, Ernie, a three-legged influencer, was invited. So, if you’re actually into cats, give Ernie’s Instagram a follow.

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