IVINS — Attending the Tuacahn Amphitheater is an event. From driving deep into the red rock canyon the theater is nestled in, to walking (in my case rushing) up the stone steps with the attractive waterfall running through the middle, and finally finding your place among 2000 open air seats. All of this, as well as the expectation of a short fireworks show at the close of every production, instills in the audience a high expectation for production values and spectacle. And that is just what Tuacahn specializes in.
After a solicitous greeting from Development Director Scott Raine, I watched as one by one the cats began to slink, skitter, and slip onto the stage. I couldn’t help but notice the eyes of the children around me lighting up (an audience of all ages is another unique part of the Tuacahn experience). The actors moved with skill and grace. Their feline quirks were believable and charming. Vocal work and dance was consistently excellent, with stand out numbers being ‘Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer,’ complete with gymnastics by Thayne Jasperson and Veronica Yeager, and ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’ with thrilling vocals by Summer Broyhill and Kyli Rae. The company’s tightly executed choreography (by director Derryl Yeager) particularly shone during ‘Song of the Jellicles and the Jellicle Ball.’ Costumes (Cheryl Yeager), makeup (Jesse Factor), choreography and actors worked together seamlessly to bring the audience into the world of the Jellical Cats. And despite a few early mic problems, which seem to be Tuacahn’s most consistent and understandable challenge given the size of the venue, I was happy to be whisked into their furry story.
However, it didn’t take me long to realize why over the years I have avoided this show as if I had an allergy. I’m not sure if anyone knows what possessed Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber to consider an odd and plotless collection of poems about “Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot a worthy subject for musical adaptation, or why a generation ago this show rocketed to success around the world, but here we are. The only emotional connection to be made within the show is in the famous ballad, “Memory.” Ironically, the powerful music was originally drafted for Lloyd Webber’s Evita; the lyrics to this song are the only ones not taken from Eliot’s book, but were written by the original West End director, Trevor Nunn. Webber and Nunn must have recognized the black hole of emotion we would find in Cats without the character of Grizabella.
Limping about in five inch stilettos and a mangy coat, Tony award winner Lisa H. Seegmiller was show-stopping as this washed up ‘glamour cat’ who dreams of her former glory. Despite making only three appearances, Grizabella is the cat who carries the show by being elected by granddaddy cat, Old Deuteronomy, (Ronald L. Brown) to be reborn in the dawn following the end of the Jellical Ball—the annual cat tradition.
By the time “Memory” really took off—three quarters of the way through the show—I had had enough spectacle. I was tired of watching cats flying (by Foy) through the air, worn out by oddly timed pyrotechnics, and a bored with the impressive, but sometimes unfinished look of the set. (Designer Doug Ellis’ beautiful renderings don’t seem to have made the journey from page to stage in one piece. ) I was ready to sink my teeth into some emotion. But the deep feeling I longed for was repeatedly interrupted—first, by a canyon-illuminating light cue, and second by sweet, but misplaced Talon G. Ackerman, who, in the role of Admetus, garnered bursts of applause every time he opened his twelve year-old soprano mouth.
Other moments that didn’t gel in the production were either script or special effects related. I can understand Mr. Yeager’s desire to keep the audience’s attention with flashy tricks like those I’ve mentioned above, especially when battling a script that offers little more than paltry answers to questions as varied as, “What do cats think about?” (answer: their secret name) and “How does one start a new life?” (answer: you must “understand what happiness was”), but these effects began to irritate. They distanced and distracted me from the performers, like a relentlessly child yelling “look what I can do!” By the time Grizabella was launched into kitty heaven in some kind of overhead rebirth-rocket I felt a full-blown rash coming on. But once the finale music began I was back with those charming cats, and—to be honest—a few closing fireworks coverth a multitude of sins. In summary: for the dance, vocals, and a lesson in the oddities of 1980’s theater history, go see Cats.