“What’s a Jellicle cat?”
It’s a phrase repeated throughout the opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s seminal oddity Cats, which somehow became an instant smash upon its 1981 release, and then launched record-breaking runs in London and on Broadway—despite the fact nobody seems able to make much sense of all those dancing kitties.
So what the hell is a Jellicle cat? It has plagued my thoughts since age 7, when my teenage brother returned from a Detroit production with cat-scratch fever. Wanting to impress him by loving the same music cool teens loved, I stole the tape and set about memorizing every word. Months later, I made my debut, regaling him with a pretty damned accurate rendition of the whimsical “Mr. Mistoffelees.” He was appalled: “What the hell is wrong with you? You’re so lame.” He then put on his headphones and cranked up Pearl Jam. I was crushed.
I had never seen the play, but the songs remained for decades, haunting my psyche but still making little sense. Webber harvested his idea from a series of T.S. Eliot poems called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which he put through the filter of cheesy hot jazz and creepy, off-key synthesizer cues seemingly stolen from John Carpenter films. Then, apparently, he raided David Bowie’s costume closet post-Labyrinth.
But where do mischievous Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, rascally Skimbleshanks, tubby Bustopher Jones, and Grizabella the glamour cat fall into a narrative about felines engaged in a bizarre ritual where one is selected to ascend on a flying tire to the ethereal Heaviside Layer. What is a Heaviside Layer? What is a Jellicle cat? Or a Gumbie Cat? Or a mystery cat, a Rumpus Cat or a Pollicle Dog? What the hell was Webber on?
Two decades and far too much contemplation later, I finally chanced upon Broadway Rose’s revival and learned the answer: There are no answers. But, oh, what a glorious spectacle, re-created here in all its nonsensical, synth-blasting, jaw-droppingly wacky glory. What is a Jellicle cat? Why, it’s an excuse for an actor to don a skintight leotard and belt out jazzy balladry while performing extremely elaborate and acrobatic choreography. It shows how versatile actors are—and how well they can endure repeated utterances of the word “Skimbleshanks” without breaking into giggles. This troupe, without exception, nails every beat.
me would have been amazed at the production, finally adding a visual
element to the music that had haunted his dreams and pushed him to
impress his brother. Thirty-one-year-old me wanted to drink heavily,
immediately, and go home and listen to the Glee soundtrack. That’s what the cool kids like these days, right?
SEE IT: Cats is at the Deb Fennell Auditorium, 9000 SW Durham Road, Tigard, 620-5262. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays and some Saturdays through July 21. No show Thursday, July 4. $20-$37.