By Barry Reszel
The current production at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre is the human equivalent of catnip for aficionados of musical theatre.
Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s timeless Cats, directed by Shawn Stengel, is a family-friendly delight to the senses that literally soars to new heights on Paramount’s gigantic, vertical stage.
First kudos go to Kevin Depinet, whose urban storm-sewer set serving as a feral feline den is among the most interesting ever seen. His use of multiple levels and the full expanse of height offered at the historic theatre provide Stengel a massive canvas on which to paint his story of a cat pack calling themselves Jellicles.
The book itself, based on poet T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, is a hodgepodged hairball of catty introductions loosely moving the clowder toward their annual Jellicle Ball. There, one cat is chosen by their leader, Old Deuteronomy, for rebirth to a new Jellicle life. More detail, including the history of Cats‘ 18-year Broadway run, is found here.
Webber’s original score, brilliantly directed by Stengel, is infused with a mixture of opera, pop, jazz and rock. It provides him and his talented choreographer, Harrison McEldowney, a vehicle to juxtapose spirited all-cast showstoppers (like “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats”) with small group and solo numbers (like “Gus: the Theatre Cat” and “Skimbleshanks”).
These are wrapped in the delicious costuming by Theresa Ham, gorgeously complementary makeup and wig designs by Katie Cordts and Lauren Cecil and luxuriant lighting by Jesse Klug. Indeed, Klug must be the hardest working man in Chicagoland theatre; his name seems to be in every Playbill.
Onstage, Stengel’s cast is an ensemble of 26 lithe athletes with angelic voices.
Most memorable is the gorgeous Lizzie MacKenzie Pontarelli as Victoria, the White Cat, who gracefully leads the choreography. Andy Planck is a resplendent Old Deuteronomy. His rich tone and paternal confidence reminds one of a feline Dumbeldore. Lauren Villegas is a stunningly sympathetic Grizabella whose rendition of “Memory” will not be soon forgotten.
Sawyer Smith, seen in Paramount’s Rent as Angel last season, is hysterical as an Elvis Presley-meets-Kinky Boots Rum Tum Tugger, while Rhett Guter’s Munkustrap, is an effortless emcee. Chicagoland theatrical stalwart George Keating illustrates his formidable acting and singing chops in numerous roles, particularly sparkling as “Gus: the Theatre Cat.”
Holly Stauder impresses as Griddlebone. Jonny Stein and Laura Savage shine as the naughty, acrobatic duo of Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. Liam Quealy, is a fun-loving, smile-evoking Skimbleshanks.
Indeed, each cat has his or her own highlight.
The nits are few and far between. Both the first act’s “Awful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles” and second act’s “Growltiger’s Last Stand” are a bit too long and could be shortened or cut all together. And the aerial choreography brings more harness distraction than it does cool effect; perhaps it’s a practice run for the theatre’s coming production of Mary Poppins.
In all, this Cats is a triumphant opening to Paramount’s 2014-15 Broadway season, its first in which the productions will be eligible for Chicago’s Jeff Awards.
“Cats” performs through Oct. 12 at the Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Blvd., Aurora. Evening shows are performed Wed. through Sun. Matinees are performed Wed., Sat. and Sun. Tickets ($41 to $54) and information are available at www.ParamountAurora.com, by calling (630) 896-6666 or visiting the Paramount box office Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and 2 hours prior to evening performances.