With its towering multilevel junkyard set and awesome array of special effects, and its highly caffeinated cast in an impressive assortment of ingenious and colorful cat costumes and makeup, British musical-theater composer extraordinaire Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats is still the cat's meow of British megamusicals. This giant West End and Broadway hit, originally staged by director Trevor Nunn associate director/choreographer Gillian Lynne, is still popular enough hereabouts to fill Raleigh Memorial Auditorium for eight high-spirited performances every two years as part of Broadway Series South.
The current U.S. Tour of Cats, produced by Cat's-Eye LLC and deftly directed and cleverly choreographed by Richard Stafford and associate director/choreographer Suzanne Viverito, features a soaring set designed by John Napier (and reproduced for the 2004 tour by Raymond Huessy), a vivid wardrobe of nifty cat costumes designed by John Napier, and a eye-popping lighting design by David Hersey (adapted here by Rick Belzer). It also boasts animated (and sometimes overpowering) instrumental accompaniment by a full orchestra under the baton of musical director/conductor Brian Taylor and an occasionally troublesome sound design by Mark Norfolk and Gaston Briski, which sometimes renders the lively lyrics (drawn from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and other writings on cats by American-English poet and dramatist T.S. Eliot) unintelligible.
Cats stars Natalie Attino as Grizabella, The Glamour Cat, and John Boy as The Rum Tum Tugger. Attino gives a poignant performance as the prodigal Jellicle Cat — once gorgeous, but now bedraggled, beaten down, and obviously on her last legs — who receives an chilly reception when she belatedly returns for the Jellicle Cat reunion. Her rendition of "Memory" is a real show stopper.
John Boy is a stitch as that mischievous cat-about-town Rum Tum Tugger; Charles Redding dances his way into the audience's heart with his high-stepping performance as that consummate feline magician Mr. Mistoffelees; and Jason Simon demonstrates the necessary gravitas — and vocal pipes — to establish Old Deuteronomy as the aging, all-knowing leader of the wild and crazy Jellicle Cats.
Meghan Randolph is cute as Jennyanydots, the tottering old Gumbie cat; and Steven C. Rich is poignant as Gus, the now-decrepit Theater Cat who somehow finds the energy to reprise his high-octane role as the swashbuckling barge-cat Growltiger, who bravely battles to the death against a cutthroat band of Siamese pirates in "Growltiger's Last Stand." And James Ginnever is a scream as the evil Macavity, the feline counterpart of Sherlock Holmes' arch-nemesis Moriarity, the Napoleon of Crime.
From the frisky Prologue ("Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats") to the glorious grand finale, the current traveling version of Cats is a real crowd-pleaser. Its opening night performance on Tuesday received a well-deserved standing ovation.
Broadway Series South presents Cats Thursday-Friday, Oct. 14-15, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 16, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 17, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $20-$60. BTI Box Office: 919/831-6060; Group Ticket Sales: 919/847-4565 or http://www.priorityseating.net/. Broadway Series South: http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/2004-2005/specials.html#cats. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=2449. Really Useful Group (Cats Page): http://www.reallyuseful.com/shows/cats/.