National touring revival brings new purr-spective to the musical 'Cats'

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  • Andrew Lloyd Webber
    Andrew Lloyd Webber
    English composer and impresario of musical theatre (born 1948)
American Theatre Guild will present the 2021-2022 national tour of "Cats" from Dec. 2-5, 2021, at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend.
American Theatre Guild will present the 2021-2022 national tour of "Cats" from Dec. 2-5, 2021, at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend.

For many years, anyone performing the role of Grizabella the Glamour Cat in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats" would inevitably find herself in the shadow of Elaine Paige.

Betty Buckley claimed a degree of ownership of the role when she took it in the 1982 Broadway production, but Paige created the role in the original 1981 London staging and returned to perform it for the 1998 film version.

However, as countless touring ensembles brought the show all over the world, other noteworthy Grizabellas have emerged. In the 2014 West End revival, Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls generated acclaim when she portrayed Grizabella as much sexier than the ragged cat Paige created. Jennifer Hudson graced the role with her soul-singer interpretation for the 2019 movie version.

Plenty of "Cats" fans today don't even know who Paige is. The show has evolved over the years, and its current American Theatre Guild touring version comes to the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend from Dec. 2 to 5.

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Mezzo-soprano Tayler Harris is cast as Grizabella, and, she says, her role reflects a microcosm of the broader evolution of "Cats." She cites the choreography as an example.

"Andy Blankenbuehler was the choreographer for 'Hamilton,' and when he came in to work on the 'Cats' revival, he added many new moves of his own, but he kept very much to the style of the original choreographer, Gillian Lynne," Harris says by phone from a tour stop in Fort Worth, Texas. "Honoring her was part of his process. Elements from both choreographers are alive in the updated version of the show."

The 2021-2022 national tour of "Cats" plays Dec. 2-5, 2021, at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend as part of American Theatre Guild's "Broadway Is Back in South Bend" series.
The 2021-2022 national tour of "Cats" plays Dec. 2-5, 2021, at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend as part of American Theatre Guild's "Broadway Is Back in South Bend" series.

Poems from T.S. Eliot's 1939 collection "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" provide the bulk of the lyrics in the show. Lloyd Webber brought in director Trevor Nunn to provide a few alterations and additional lyrics.

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The show revolves around the antics of a group called the Jellicle Cats. For unspecified reasons, Grizabella has fallen from grace in their society. Nunn's adaptation of Eliot's poem "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," retitled "Memory," became one of the most beloved songs in all of musical theater. Grizabella, who typically spends fewer than 20 minutes onstage in most productions, has to come out at the end and nail "Memory."

Harris says that she carefully manages her hydration and does some light exercising to stay physically sharp backstage. Most of the preparation involves the delicate emotional nuances Grizabella is experiencing, and conveying those night after night when it's time for "Memory."

American Theatre Guild will present the 2021-2022 national tour of "Cats" from Dec. 2-5, 2021, at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend.
American Theatre Guild will present the 2021-2022 national tour of "Cats" from Dec. 2-5, 2021, at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend.

"Grizabella has been through so much pain and suffering, but at the same time, she is majestic, indomitable," Harris says. "At the end of the show, she has to give it her all. You should be able to see it in her eyes and even in her body language. She just wants to be loved, to be included. At first, I was nervous about being the next person in this role, with those big shoes to fill. At the end of the day, though, I'm just confident that I've put in the work, and I'm carrying on the legacy of Grizabella."

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The vitriol that the 2019 movie generated got so heated largely because of the great deal of affection so many fans have for "Cats."

To see weirdly applied CGI effects distracting attention during the songs was too much for the die-hards, and they snapped. Critics and bloggers tried to outdo one another in coming up with ways of saying the movie was lousy. It ended up getting near the very bottom of ratings aggregate sites such as Rotten Tomatoes.

When the smoke cleared, however, people started admitting that Hudson and Taylor Swift at least salvaged much of it.

Indalecio De Jesús Valentín plays Old Deuteronomy in the 2021-2022 national tour of "Cats" that American Theatre Guild will present Dec. 2-5, 2021, at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend.
Indalecio De Jesús Valentín plays Old Deuteronomy in the 2021-2022 national tour of "Cats" that American Theatre Guild will present Dec. 2-5, 2021, at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend.

People feel so strongly about it that they can't bear to have a weak link in the chain. Every new cast must be up to the challenge.

"There have been so many iconic Grizabellas. The same goes for Rum Tug Tugger and Old Deuteronomy. So many actors have been a part of this legacy," Harris says. "They've all found their own ways of telling the story."

People seem to be extra opinionated about it because practically everyone has seen or heard the show at least once.

"They may have seen a film adaptation or a production on stage," Harris says. "They may have even seen it on a cruise ship."

Max Craven as Mungojerrie and Kelly Donah as Rumpleteazer appear in the 2021-2022 national tour of "Cats" that American Theatre Guild will present Dec. 2-5, 2021, at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend.
Max Craven as Mungojerrie and Kelly Donah as Rumpleteazer appear in the 2021-2022 national tour of "Cats" that American Theatre Guild will present Dec. 2-5, 2021, at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend.

Onstage

What: American Theatre Guild presents "Cats"

Where: Morris Performing Arts Center, 211 N. Michigan St., South Bend

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec.2, 8 p.m. Dec. 3, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Dec. 4, and 2 p.m. Dec. 5

Cost: $113.50-$38.50

For more information: Call 574-235-9190 or visit morriscenter.org

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: 'Cats' continues to evolve with its latest revival

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