Cats: Just as Jellicle as Ever

It's time for the last entry in Cat Week, and the only non-Disney offering. Yes, it's that singing and dancing sensation from Andrew Lloyd Webber:

Cats DVD

Cats. Jellicle cats. Jellicle songs for jellicle cats. Jellicle.

I've seen Cats on stage. While I enjoy the show, it's not my favorite musical. It's not even my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. That would either be Jesus Christ Superstar, or Evita, depending on my mood. Heck, on some days I enjoy Aspects of Love more than Cats.

I guess I need more plot and structure, and actual drama, in my stage productions. What you get with Cats is a parade of T.S. Eliot poems about kitties set to music, and one's enjoyment rises or falls with the strength of the individual numbers. Personally, I enjoy "The Rum Tum Tugger," "Mr. Mistoffelees," and of course, "Memory." Numbers I don't care for include the interminable "Pekes and the Pollicles," and the similarly lengthy "Growltiger's Last Stand." On the whole, though, I find Cats thoroughly enjoyable. It's the kind of show that leaves you with a silly grin on your face and two or three tunes stuck in your head.

My daughter, as it turns out, really likes Cats. Our family had caught a piece of Webber's Phantom of the Opera on television (I am apparently alone among Webber fans in that I don't really care for Phantom at all). My daughter thought she liked the music, and my wife said, well, if you like that, you'll love...and she was right. My daughter is now a committed Cats fan.

All of that describes the musical, though, and what I am reviewing here is the DVD. This is apparently the only official DVD edition of the show, and unfortunately, it's lackluster. Don't get me wrong, the cast is first rate. The performers are all-stars from productions in London and Broadway, including Elaine Paige returning as Grizabella, plus a few ringers, like Sir John Mills, father of That Darn Cat's Hayley Mills, in a one-off performance as Gus, the Theatre Cat. But a few problems mar this version.

First is the quality of the transfer. You don't often see DVD images looking this awful these days. It's from an era I would call "VHS on disc." The disc predates enhanced anamorphic transfer, so you get black bars on the sides, more black bars top and bottom, and you're left with two bad choices: a tiny picture in the middle of your big TV screen, or using your television's rarely examined "zoom" mode, chopping off some of the image top and bottom.

Second is the directorial style. For some reason, and apparently Webber himself had some hand in this decision, instead of doing the normal thing and having all the cameras out in the "audience" (there is no actual audience in this production), and switching between wide and medium shots, instead we get a mixture of wide, medium, tight close-ups, and from angles that could only have been produced by cameras on the stage. In some cases, we even get reverse angles, towards where the audience would be.

That decision is a mistake. First of all, the edits make it clear we're not simply watching one run through of the show, but several edited together, and in some cases, I think we're seeing pick-up shots. Secondly, close-ups and fast cutting destroy the continuity that dance requires to be fully appreciated. I'm reminded of what Ginger Rogers said when she first saw Saturday Night Fever, "Young people today think they can dance with their faces."

Finally, some of the original stage production has been cut. Most obviously, all of Growltiger is gone, which is no great loss, but also lots of the dancing sequences are missing. I have to sympathize with Mr. Mistoffelees, who has lost much of his featured dance, as his is mostly a dancing role.

But even with all these problems, given that there is no alternative, I can give the DVD a recommendation. This is the best kind of family entertainment, something that children can enjoy as children, and that adults can enjoy as adults.

One final word: sexy. I had forgotten how randy some of the cats get on stage. There are several close-ups of felines shaking tushes, and the Rum Tum Tugger is clearly looking for a girl in heat, at one point rubbing his hands over the chest of a female dancer. There's not so much of it to make uncomfortable viewing, but I thought I should mention it.

In summary: Cats. Now and forever. Jellicle.

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