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Review: Grizabella belts top ‘Memory’ in ‘Cats’ at First Interstate Center

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 21, 2021

By Taylor Waring For The Spokesman-Review

Since debuting 40 years ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats” has enchanted audiences with its spectacle of costume, dance and song. Based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the musical follows a group of cats known as the Jellicles on the night of their annual ball.

Throughout “Cats,” which opened Tuesday night at the First Interstate Center for the Arts, the audience is introduced to a whole litter of cool cats to see who will be chosen to pass on to the Heaviside layer by their leader, Old Deuteronomy (Indalecio De Jesús Valentín).

This production of “Cats” features a fresh young cast, 17 of whom are on their first national tour. Opening night had a few hairballs in Act I (an off note here and there, some phoned-in dance moves – nothing major) that can be chalked up to nerves and a new room. By the end of Act I, the cast managed to land on its paws.

This was, in large part, due to Tayler Harris’ performance of “Memory” as the aged, once-glamorous but now outcast Grizabella. Harris, from Portland, is one of the cast’s standout performers, which is no doubt why she was cast in such a central role.

With a full, rich voice, she masterfully performed the musical’s best-known song, and her expressive eyes beautifully conveyed Grizabella’s waning years. Performed alone onstage, the track is a sort of serenade to Grizabella’s lost light and youth.

In Act II, the cast was firing on all cylinders. With the comedic appearance of Gus, the Theater Cat (John Anker Bow), the crowd was quickly laughing along with his jokes.

This was followed by action-packed, high-energy performances of songs like “Macavity, the Mystery Cat” and “Magical Mister Mistoffelees.” The dance work of Mistoffelees (Paul Giarratano) was met with several rounds of applause throughout the show.

Led by director John Napier, the set and costumes featured fun, retro vibes. The set itself had a giant acrylic-on-velvet neon backdrop with stars. This was surrounded by a two-tier, junkyard-style set that had a steampunk vibe complete with a giant, floating tire.

Characters like Rum Tum Tugger (Zach Bravo) and Macavity (Dominic Fortunato) appeared in late 1970s heavy metal-inspired costumes.

The orchestra was directed and conducted by Jonathan Gorst. With a relatively small crew, the conductor was able to bring the music of “Cats” alive. Running with the retro vibe of the set, many of the keyboards had cool, old-school synthesizer tones that worked well on tracks like “Song of the Jellicles and the Jellicle Ball” and “Magical Mister Mistoffelees.”

Being based on 80-year-old poems and having a very loose narrative structure, it’s amazing that “Cats” has endured as a hit in the character-driven, post-“Game of Thrones” world. Nevertheless, the songs, dances and, most importantly, the cats remain fan favorites with theatergoers.

Part of Westcoast Entertainment’s STCU Best of Broadway series, “Cats” continues at First Interstate Center through Sunday.

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