The movie is on another plane of reality, at once fascinating and repulsive. Yet the words “jellicle” and “heaviside” begin creeping into everyday vocabulary. You make a list comparing all the democratic presidential candidates to various characters from Cats (it is the perfect analogy, they are all desperate to show off who deserves to ascend to a new life). Then, suddenly you’re in the audience of a real live production of Cats among people wearing cat ears and leopard prints and face paint and think, "How did I get here?"
The crowd that sees Broadway musicals at the Benedum Center usually skews older and wealthier than average, for obvious reasons. This can make for a stuffier audience that favors dignified, reserved applause. But the crowd on opening night of Cats, which runs through Sun., March 1, was lively, literally hooting and hollering throughout the show. When the titular cats danced in the aisles during the performance, a middle-aged woman yelled “YES, SKIMBLESHANKS!” like a teenager screaming for Harry Styles, until Skimbleshanks (the railway cat) reached for her hand. A young man behind me literally purred at a passing cat. Several people were making clawing gestures in between claps.
Cats is unlike most other musicals in that there's no dialogue or plot that provides a reason for the songs to exist. They simply begin, and don't stop until the show is done. Loosely, it is about a group of “jellicle cats” (don’t ask, there are no answers), who perform songs about their identities as a fat cat, or a thieving cat, or a magical cat, as an attempt to get be reborn in another life as an even better cat (aka ascend to the heaviside layer). Having seen the movie, I was able to understand the story much better than if I had gone in blind because it explains some of the plot, which is impossible to explain.
The best way (and only?) way to enjoy Cats is to give in. Understand that it’s utter nonsense based on a T.S. Eliot book of poetry analyzing the psychology of cats. Accept that some people love cats (the animal) more than you could ever imagine. Buckle in for the ride of your life, because Cats feels more like an amusement park attraction or a vaudeville show than a coherent musical. The bright lights that string across the stage and beyond feel like a carnival. The cats dancing up and down the aisles feels like dinner theater.
Underneath the elastic costumes and furry leg warmers and layers of facepaint, there is a collection of songs that overcome adversity to become bangers. Some of the solo performances were lacking, but the Cats cast was at its best when singing as a group (“clowder” is the word for a group of cats). The show peaks when Mister Mistoffelees (the magical cat) performs “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” by descending from the ceiling in a jacket that lights up rainbow. The number whipped the crowd into a frenzy and felt like a fever dream inside a pinball machine.
Other highlights come from the performers’ acrobatics, ballet, tap dancing, and general ability to work a dozen different genres and styles into a musical about cats begging for death.
By the end, I felt I’d been hypnotized by a group of lithe cats begging for a new, better life. I didn’t want to get to this point, but here I am. Watching Cats the movie was fun like watching plastic melt is fun. But Cats the musical was good because it transcends the absurdity of its premise. It’s set up to be bad, based on its depraved presence and general absurdity, so the fact that the music and performers can push through that and make something enjoyable is all the more impressive.