For 13 years, starting in late 1986, “Cats” at the Fox Theatre in midtown was more or less a yearly tradition. Successive national tours of the massively popular, spandex-clad feline revue whisked into town, typically in mid-January, for five days of theater magic. By the late ’80s, the actors were singing tunes that had become well-worn earworms to legions of musical theater fans, first planted in the psyche by Andrew Lloyd Webber during the “Cats” original London run in 1981 and later on Broadway. These familiar felines haven’t appeared at the Fox since.
Now “Cats” is back, two decades removed, in its familiar midtown setting. Reconstituted in official touring form based on a 2016 Broadway revival, the Broadway Across America production seems to look and feel and sound like it always has without appearing so overly dated that it’s not enjoyable. This freshness is helped by new choreography, a mishmash of modern, jazz and ballet dance mixed with nearly constant feline twitches, introduced by Andy Blankenbuehler of “Hamilton” fame.
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“Cats” has always generated some of its magic by extending the proscenium into the audience. Felines prance down the aisles during the overture but also return to the crowd throughout the performance. During his introductory song on Tuesday, the Iggy Pop-esque personality Rum Tum Tugger (McGee Maddox) jumped off the stage, throwing popcorn into the air and tearing up an onlooker’s program with a rueful jocularity; in “The Naming of Cats,” the balletic Coricopat (PJ DiGaetano) got so close to my face that I could count the sweat droplets beading on his kittenish brow (and also marvel at the detailed costume design by John Napier). If you’re seated on the aisle in the center orchestra section, be warned.
This unpredictability, and a feeling of being part of the junkyard set, is part of the charm. If the cats can break the Fourth Wall, what else can they do? Tap dance? Jennyanydots at your service. Descend from the sky in a glittery jumpsuit festooned with blinking LEDs like a bewhiskered Prince? Mistoffelees (Tion Gaston), in his show-stopping number, does just that.
The main plot is laid out during “The Invitation to the Jellicle Ball,” wherein Munkustrap (a magnificent Dan Hoy) tells the audience, more or less, that the remainder of the time on stage will be spent with a series of Broadway tunes that introduce each cat. Cue the “A Chorus Line”-style string of story songs that span a range of genres from big-band jazz to pop-funk to, of course, a belted showstopper.
On the whole, the superlative cast of singers and dancers created magic themselves with a tight, energetic performance with nary a faulty note or flubbed step. Of course, as Grizabella, Keri Rene Fuller took the lead with what is surely the most famous “Cats” tune, “Memory,” playing her star turn on the maudlin melody with compelling restraint (mostly).
Awash in synthesizer sounds imported directly from the early ’80s, “Cats” nonetheless felt current, or at least timeless. There’s no deeper meaning about the show, so don’t go looking for one. Lloyd Webber's hummable melodies paired with poetry borrowed from T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” won’t bring about any epiphanies about the times we’re in, but the show is a lot of fun.
Another warning: The jaunty melody at the heart of “Jellicle Ball,” played with rakish flair and languid syncopation, is one of many pithy bits of music that can root itself in the psyche. Catchy melodies, the magic of theater escapism and reinforcing childhood memories are this show’s bread and butter.
The current tour, which began in January, will hit every corner of the country well into next year. More “Cats” is also on the horizon with a pull-out-all-the-stops movie slated to open in December. So it might be impossible to escape the once-longest running musical in Broadway history, but why would you want to do that?
Aug. 6-11. $35-$155.25. Fox Theatre, 600 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-881-2100, foxtheatre.org.
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