Monday, June 18, 2012

Cats, Mercury Summer Stock

(Brian Marshall as Gus, the Theater Cat and Angela Bruzina as Jellylorum)

There is no more enduring punch line in all of theater than Cats. This Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has had more crap dumped on it in the last 30 years than a desert full of kitty litter.

Mocked for being unsophisticated, plot-less claptrap aimed at pre-teen girls, theater rubes and burnt-out Asian businessmen, one can tend to forget that the show has undeniable strong points. And although this production by Mercury Summer Stock is raw in parts and lacking in vocal depth, the staging is nicely detailed and at times even captivating.

Based on whimsical poems by T.S. Eliot in his book "Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats," the show links a series of feline profiles and a study of an intricate society made up of “jellicle” cats. Salted with British language and slang, it is a mostly sung-through and entirely danced-through show.

This, of course, requires performers who can sing and dance, and sing after dancing, and dance after dancing, and sing and dance after prowling around like cats on all fours. And then do it all again and again. No wonder cats always look so pissed off.

Anyhow, some of this large troupe are up to those tasks while others clearly aren't.

Also, since MSS is a small budget operation, the sheer spectacle that lifted the Broadway version of Cats to popular heights is absent. In addition, Mercury's threadbare five-piece orchestra can’t fill in the rather substantial auditory gaps.

That’s a big hunk of challenge to take on, which talented director/choreographer Pierre-Jacques Brault happily shoulders. And his cast is so well disciplined many of the scenes play remarkably well. This is especially true with the large dance numbers when pit singers can be used to add heft to the soundscape.

Among the specific scenes that work is “Gus: The Theater Cat,” featuring Brian Marshall as an old cat actor recalling his glory years. Stephen Robert Carder captures the rock star vibe of Rum Tug Tugger, and Tasha Brandt is amusing as Jennyanydots.

The signature song, “Memory,” is given a poignant turn by Kelly Monaghan as Grizabella, although she can’t hit the high belt notes.

The rented costumes are professional, giving the production necessary visual zing. However, the uncredited and monumentally busy set design is a bit of a mystery, as it features toys and games from childhood such as Play-doh and Chutes & Ladders as opposed to the usual junkyard setting. This domesticates the cat population and does them a symbolic disservice.

Still, there are pleasures to be had in this Cats, thanks to a hard-working cast that pounces on this material with feline delight.

Through June 30, produced by Mercury Summer Stock at the Regina Auditorium, Notre Dame College, 1857 S Green Rd., South Euclid, 216-771-5862.

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