Broadway in Austin’s ‘Cats’ is a whimsical piece of pure nostalgic spectacle

As a critic, I try to walk into most productions as blind as possible. I may read a play to get some context, or look up some information on a historical figure if they’re the subject of a work, but on the whole, I try to remain as impartial as possible, keeping expectations minimal and on a level ground. That said, there are some productions that carry with them added weight. Cats is one of my family’s favorite musicals. My sisters and I wore out an old VHS tape of the Broadway production, playing it over and over, and later, my nieces and nephews did the same, and it was always one of my mother’s dreams to see a live production of it. This is the weight I couldn’t help but carry into Broadway in Austin’s production of the musical, a musical that had followed me around since my childhood. Could anything ever live up to those kind of expectations? In a word, yes, but let’s examine further.

When you spend so much time with a musical, it almost becomes a part of you. Even hearing someone mention Skimbleshanks is enough to make me grin, for instance, as it brings back memories of an elementary school theatre arts production, or those tapes, where he was far and away my favorite Gelical Cat (pretty good for a character who only spends about twenty minutes on stage). Mistoffelees, Macavity, Deuteronomy, these characters all hold a special place in my heart, so seeing them live on stage, you would think it comes with an automatic joy. However, there’s the rub. Broadway in Austin’s production could have gone very badly. With such extreme nostalgia comes expectation, and though there’s a joy that comes with meeting those expectations, there’s also the very likely disappointment that will come with not meeting them. After all, if someone has memories of one of the best productions of a particular musical, it can be a difficult task to overcome that to create something worthwhile.

It’s to director Trevor Nunn’s credit, and the credit of all his team, that this production not only met my expectations, but exceeded them. What Nunn and company have created here is very smart, as it clings to the parts of the musical that Cats lovers enjoy, while adding just enough to keep things fresh and interesting. We can still sing and clap along as Mistoffelees does his incredibly footwork, still beam with joy when Skimbleshanks finally shows appears, vest and all, and weep when Grizabella is finally accepted by her peers. What Nunn added is the polished production, from the fine costume work, to the gorgeous set design, to the absolutely stunning lighting design, the latter of which elevates every scene, as they know when to keep the work subtle, and when to explode in a flurry of insane tricks, keeping the momentum lively and the action moving, and making some of the show’s best moments shine even brighter.

Certain pieces of art need no introduction. You don’t need someone to tell you that the Mona Lisa is working checking out, or that The Barber of Seville is a hot show. In much the same way, most of the people reading this will already know whether or not they’re going to enjoy Cats. That said, what Broadway in Austin has brought us is a visually sumptuous, wackily whimsical presentation of the White Way mainstay, full of stunning choreography, impressive production, and polished performers. Nunn has provided the epitome of Cats production with this tour, creating an unforgettable experience for lovers of the musical, which may even turn some reluctant naysayers.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy.