Review: Cats: The Jellicle Ball Is the Most Fun I’ve Ever Had at an Andrew Lloyd Webber Musical

Zhailon Levingston and Bill Rauch radically reimagine the musical feline death ritual.

The company of Cats: The Jellicle Ball at PAC NYC.
(© Matthew Murphy)

In the late ’80s, as well-heeled tourists flocked to the original Broadway run of Cats at the Winter Garden Theatre, Jennie Livingston was uptown documenting Harlem’s queer ballroom culture for her film Paris Is Burning. If a typical audience at the Winter Garden featured a CFO and his wife, a Harlem ball might have a couple imitating their style and deportment in the “executive realness” and “opulence” categories.

Mutually accessible by a short ride on the A Train, these two worlds, Broadway and ballroom, couldn’t have been farther apart — separated by class, money, power, and a giant gulf of mainstream cultural acceptance. But now they joyously commune in Cats: The Jellicle Ball at PAC NYC. It’s the musical event of the summer and the most fun I’ve ever had at an Andrew Lloyd Webber show.

As a property, Cats provokes both love and loathing. For millions of fans across the globe, it was their entry into theater and remains a beloved memory. For American musical-theater snobs, it represents the nadir of the mindless British mega-musical: adult dancers in Lycra cat suits sweating it out to synthesizers, with little plot to show for it. The cats gather for the Jellicle Ball, introducing themselves through song, hoping to ascend to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn. The use of T.S. Eliot’s poetry for the lyrics provides only the thinnest veneer of meaning.  It’s about singing, dancing cats. That’s it. Or so I thought.

In my review of the 2016 Broadway revival, I lamented a barely updated production that “presents Cats for what it was, while declining to further explore what it could be.” Blessedly, co-directors Zhailon Levingston and Bill Rauch (artistic director of PAC NYC) have taken up that challenge and what they’ve discovered is astounding.

The company of Cats: The Jellicle Ball walks the runway at PAC NYC.
(© Matthew Murphy)

This Cats is a competitive ball taking place in a repurposed industrial space, with a long runway spanning the distance between the windows and the judges’ table (really useful scenic design by Rachel Hauck). The “cats” are contestants, competing in categories like “Butch Queen Realness” (easily won by Rum Tum Tugger, as portrayed by an irresistibly sexy Sydney James Harcourt) and “Old vs. New” voguing (Skimbleshanks, portrayed by the hilarious Emma Sofia in MTA conductor eleganza, loses this one by a whisker). As always in ballroom, the point is to both revel in fantasy and expose the theater of everyday life through gleeful cultural appropriation — and sometimes outright theft in the case of Macavity, here portrayed by Antwayn Hopper as a sticky-fingered drag queen with a taste for designer labels.

Old Deuteronomy (André De Shields at his most majestic) presides over the runway, dolling out trophies through his MC, Munkustrap (indispensable hype man Dudney Joseph Jr.), while giving other kitties the chop. It will be his ultimate decision who wins the grand prize of a chance to be reborn.

Under the steady guidance of Levingston and Rauch, the synthesis of these two seemingly unrelated worlds feels instantly natural, a delicious kind of theatrical alchemy that provides the basis for some great performances.

Junior LaBeija plays Gus, and Shereen Pimentel plays Jellylorum in Cats: The Jellicle Ball, directed by Zhailon Levingston and Bill Rauch, at PAC NYC.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Asparagus, the old theater cat who complains about “these kittens” who “think they are smart just to jump through a hoop,” always had a whiff of Dorian Corey about him. That spiritual kinship comes into full focus through a heartwarming performance by ballroom legend Junior LaBeija.

Most impressive is “Tempress” Chasity Moore as Grizabella. We first see her with smudged lipstick, rifling through a large bag for her dusty old trophy. The other cats recoil at her presence, but we sense that there’s still sparkle in her faded glamor, and she shines radiantly in her stirring rendition of “Memory.”

This is a story about chosen names and chosen family — a community that cherishes its elders but also values innovation and competition. The only limits are one’s own imagination and resourcefulness, and the possibility of redemption is always just one ball away.

It’s unexpectedly poignant, yes. But more importantly, it’s so much fun. We feel that from the moment the cats vogue down the runway (authentic and death-droppingly athletic choreography by Omari Wiles and Arturo Lyons). The crowd goes nuts, cheering, clapping, and clacking fans in appreciation, making this event feel like a real ball.

André De Shields stars as Old Deuteronomy in Cats: The Jellicle Ball, directed by Zhailon Levingston and Bill Rauch, at PAC NYC.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Adam Honoré’s spectacular lighting greatly enhances the illusion, with playful projections by Brittany Bland providing backup. Kai Harada’s sound design leads me to my only quibble (while it was solid through much of the show, the balance was occasionally off, drowning the lyrics). Costume designer Qween Jean delivers her masterpiece, a dazzling array of sickening looks that will surely have every Drag Race contestant past and present scrambling for her phone number. The same goes for Nikiya Mathis, who has cultivated a menagerie of wigs (Skimbleshanks’s tiger stripe mane is a personal favorite). This is the kind of magic New York theater can produce, and if you couldn’t hear the music, you would never suspect this is an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

It’s beyond dispute that Lloyd Webber is the composer who most successfully brought the musical into the age of globalization, with all that entails: aggressive marketing, an embrace of mass media, and above all, a zealous policing of the brand. The result has been billions in ticket sales. Having no more worlds left to conquer as a businessman, Lloyd Webber the composer now seems open to loosening his aesthetic grip and allowing a new generation of directors to reinvent his work. If that’s the case, it’s a thrilling development, and I hope that Cats: The Jellicle Ball is a giddy indication of things to come.

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