In the 1980s, the Blue Pear label released on LP a scratchy live recording made during the brief Broadway run, and one can clearly hear the audience adoring the show. They're entranced with leading lady Lesley Ann Warren in the role of a New York socialite/jewel thief (so were the critics); they cheer Elliott Gould , as the inept cop pursuing the thief, for his unassuming charm and sturdy baritone; they howl at director-choreographer Joe Layton's inventive comic ballets. Since the original production shuttered, there has been a studio cast recording and the occasional small production of the show in the hinterlands, but the question of what exactly is wrong with Drat! the Cat! has never been answered. Until now.
Mel Miller's Musicals Tonight! gang is having a go at the show and proving that there's nothing at all wrong with it. In this stripped-down, books-in-hand rendering, the pleasures of the daffy, late-Golden-Age musical come through, sometimes tentatively but clearly overall. Levin's book is inconsequential yet light on its feet -- a mixture of high and low comedy, rather in the spirit of the current Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It's similarly focused on greed and larceny among the upper classes, with spoiled-rotten Alice Van Guilder (Blythe Gruda) leading on honest, klutzy detective Bob Purefoy (Scott Evans) as he pursues The Cat, a mysterious jewel thief who dresses in a tight feline costume and circulates among New York's upper crust. That's really all there is to it; there isn't even a subplot or secondary couple, unless it's Alice's robber-baron father (Larry Daggett) and hysterical mother (Verna Pierce).
The show is broad and knowing, with subsidiary characters named Dr. Sophistry and Mayor Chicanery. Even the throwaway details are ridiculous; for example, we learn that the previous crook to baffle the NYPD was known as the Tap-Dancing Strangler. But Levin gets in some good, still-relevant licks at the fleecing of small investors and the worship of money as a religion. He breaks down the fourth wall, with characters addressing the audience directly -- an innovation at the time, but used much less relentlessly than in such modern-day shows as Spamalot. Most crucially, he sets clever, well-turned lyrics to Schafer's easy-on-the-ears tunes; there's plenty here that's worth listening to besides "She Touched Me." "Let's Go" is charm-song writing of a high order, "Wild and Reckless" is a lively flamenco pastiche, and "Deep in Your Heart" one of the unlikeliest Broadway ballads ever: The hero sings it to the heroine while she has him chained to a water pipe and is holding a gun on him. (His crooning works its magic, of course, and she finally put down the pistol.) With its bizarre plotting and outlandish resolution, Drat! the Cat! wins no prizes for logic or depth, but it may well have been the breeziest musical comedy of 1965.
The Musicals Tonight!' shows, always thrown together quickly and with minimal budgets, sometimes suffer from slapdash choral work and/or miscasting. This time, the chorus sounds excellent and most of the leads are strong. Lesley Ann Warren apparently turned Alice into a supremely self-possessed, sexy minx whose cruelty to her fellow man was absolute but unintentional. Gruda -- a big, non-debutante-like woman -- doesn't capture Alice's Paris Hilton-like self-absorption or her feminine wiles. She has a few good notes, but they seldom land in the same song until her well-sung "I Like Him." Conversely, Evans has a light but secure tenor and projects just the right qualities for forthright, bumbling Bob; from his first number to the final clinch, he has the audience rooting for him.
Thomas Mills' direction and choreography -- including some witty steps for the Act II opener -- offer little in the way of nuance or staging coups. But, against formidable odds and with minimal rehearsal time, Larry Daggett makes Lucius Van Guilder a glorious caricature; and Lew Lloyd was born to play Pincer, a harrumphing chief of police from Central Casting. (One can only guess how perfect Charles Durning must have been in '65.)
The original Drat! the Cat! boasted handsome David Hays scenery, colorful orchestrations by Hershy Kay and Clare Grundman, and an Act I Kabuki-spoof ballet that brought down the house. None of these will be found in the Musicals Tonight! presentation, the fun of which is sometimes in danger of being spoiled by missed cued and amateurish theatrics. However, if you bring along your imagination and a supply of good will, you'll have a very pleasant time.