In an episode of Netflix’s brilliant “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,’’ Broadway wanna-be Titus Andromedon suddenly leaves his seat in the middle of a performance of "Cats’' and clambers onstage, wearing a feline get-up.
Identifying himself as “Frumbumbly,’’ Titus croons some quasi-musical gibberish — and is immediately rewarded with an enthusiastic ovation. Afterwards, Titus is confronted backstage by the seemingly irate leader of the cast, who says: “So you thought that you would go up on that stage, in your homemade costume, [and] sing a bunch of nonsense in the middle of a Broadway show?’’ Then comes the kicker: “Well, good for you, ‘cause you just discovered the secret of ‘Cats!’ ‘’
Turns out that “Cats’’ is utterly fake. Anyone, literally anyone, can be in “Cats.’’ All you have to do is don furry cat ears, get onstage, and purr a few non sequiturs in song.
Hey, that explanation makes as much sense as any other for the musical that Will. Not. Die. As if to taunt us with fresh evidence of its combination of inanity and indestructibility, a touring production of “Cats’’ has slithered into the Citizens Bank Opera House while the wounds are still fresh from a just-released, universally reviled film version. Trust this dazed survivor of the stage version when I tell you that “Cats’’ in live performance has lost none of its capacity to inflict suffering.
When I saw the original Broadway production in the mid-1980s, I found “Cats’’ to be vapid, twee, and generally painful to sit through, the theatrical equivalent of an unrelenting toothache. The years have not improved it. (Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in….) Once you’ve actually seen “Cats,’’ even its advertising taglines — “ ‘Cats’: Now and forever,’’ “Let the memory live again’’ — can make you shudder.
Seldom has so much talent and stagecraft been wasted on so little. Featuring a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics drawn from “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,’’ a slender 1939 volume of light verse by that noted cut-up T.S. Eliot, “Cats’’ is a sung-through musical whose nearly nonexistent plot revolves around the Jellicles, a tribe of felines with baroque monikers (Rumpelteazer, Mistoffelees, Jennyanydots, Macavity, Skimbleshanks, et. al.).
They are holding a competitive Jellicle Ball in which each of them takes turns singing about their own lives, exploits, personalities, and regrets, or is the subject of a song by another cat. The goal is to be the one feline deemed worthy by a shaggy eminence named Old Deuteronomy (Brandon Michael Nase) of the chance to ascend to the “Heaviside Layer’’ — cat heaven — and then be reborn into a new life. Apart from “Memory,’’ though, Lloyd Webber’s score is decidedly second-rate. As Grizabella, Keri René Fuller belts out a rafter-raising rendition of “Memory,’’ although, like many young singers, Fuller shows signs of Idina Menzel Syndrome, or perhaps we should call it “American Idol’’ Syndrome, where volume is prized over expressivity. But then again subtlety has little place in “Cats.’’
Directed by Trevor Nunn, a large cast crawls, capers, and yowls with abandon on John Napier’s junkyard set inside the Opera House. They ably and energetically execute Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, which is based on Gillian Lynne’s original dances. But the overall sensation of “Cats,’’ for all of its strenuous huffing and puffing — make that hissing and meowing — is of an empty spectacle.
Which brings us back to the “Kimmy Schmidt’’ episode. Like most good satire, it put its finger on a fundamental problem with its target. For all of its precise staging, there is a pervasive randomness to “Cats,’’ whether the show is mining a vein of labored whimsy in a song about the dandyish “Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town,’’ or venturing into pseudo-metaphysical solemnity in “The Journey to the Heaviside Layer.’’ It’s hard to say which of those two modes is more irritating.
Part of the blame for the nearly plotless farrago that is “Cats’’ apparently should be be assigned to Valerie Eliot, the poet’s widow. According to Eric Grode’s “The Book of Broadway,’’ when Valerie granted Lloyd Webber permission to adapt “Practical Cats,’’ she stipulated that Eliot’s verse had to provide the sole text of the show. That removed the option of a book, which usually furnishes a musical’s story and dialogue. It might have helped "Cats.'' Might.
This is a good place to note that “Cats’’ has provided employment for many singers, dancers, musicians, and other theater artists over the decades. This is also a good place to note the stage version has provided a lot of pleasure over the years to its fiercely loyal admirers. Good for them. You like what you like.
But for everyone else, I would remind you that although lore has it that cats have nine lives, we humans only get one. You shouldn’t squander a minute of yours on “Cats.’’
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,’’ by T.S. Eliot. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, Boston. Through Jan. 19. Tickets start at $44.50. 800-982-2787, www.BroadwayInBoston.com