by MIKE CHAIKEN
Years ago when I worked at a regional theater company, I was working the light board during a successful run of one of their play productions.
The show was midway through its run, and the cast was pretty much a well-oiled machine at that point. So the anxiety of “getting it right” before a paying audience had subsided.
So, prior to one of the Sunday matinees, the lead and one of the theater staff members felt confident enough to distract themselves with an ice-skating outing.
Although the skating had been fun, the exertion left the lead exhausted.
When show time arrived, the energy the lead had exhibited for the past few weeks had taken on a weird skew. The lines were right. The blocking was correct.
But there was something just… off. And the audience sensed it as they shifted about uncomfortably.
This “Memory” came to mind as I was watching the first act of the national road tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats,” which opened at Hartford’s The Bushnell on Tuesday, Jan. 29.
There wasn’t anything particularly wrong as the cast acted out Webber’s musical based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”
The ensemble work by the cat-costumed dancers choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler was well-rehearsed, professional and athletic. The singing under the musical supervision of Kristen Blodgette– from choral work to solos ‑ was superb.
But there was this weird energy on stage for the first hour-plus of the show, which is about how this one particular group of cats gathers once a year to determine who among their number gets to go to heaven.
The performance was “right” but it seemed as if the actors were trudging through some theatrical snowy slush. The actors were moving forward but they were held back by some kind of invisible dramatic bungee cord.
And that sense of sluggishness spilled over into the audience, who appeared bored. The applause was perfunctory and obligatory.
The couple behind me was so disconnected by what was happening on stage that they amused themselves by cracking jokes shared in a conversational volume.
Don’t get me wrong. There were some wonderful moments in the first act.
McGee Maddox’s performance as an Elvis-like heartthrob Rum Tum Tigger was a theatrical bolt of lightning on stage. Alas, the energy subsided as soon as his character returned to being another face in the crowd.
Tony d’Alelio and Ahren Victory also were great fun on “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer.” Again, the energy disappeared as soon as they did.
By the time of a merciful intermission, the stupor on stage made me wonder why “Cats” had such a magical reputation.
Then something wonderful happened.
During the break, the cast must have downed a couple of Red Bulls or received a rousing football coach-type pep talk.
All of a sudden, the cast of “Cats” found its zing.
Number after number was a winner.
In the first act, Keri Rene Fuller’s (Grizabella) performance of the chestnut “Memory” was more mournful than yearning. When she reprised it in the second half, the yearning of a better day returned and the bummer note of mourning was nowhere to be had.
“Gus the Theatre Cat,” performed by Kaitlyn Davidson and Timothy Gulan, was great fun. It was enchanting to hear the tale of an elder cat resting on the laurels he constructed during his younger days in the theater.
The choreography in the second half also found its zip and now was more astounding then merely professional. Tion Gaston, especially, was an athletic wunderkind in “Magical Mistor Mistoffelees.”
All of this leads me back to the opening of the review when I spoke about theatrical energy.
It was clear from the second act at The Bushnell that the cast of “Cats” that the cast had the talent to wow an audience.
Like most ensembles, however, the energy, chemistry, of a successful theater production must find its groove and tap into that special kind of energy necessary for good theater.
Although the first act of “Cats” had me wondering what I wandered into, I believe – given the superb second act on Jan. 29 ‑ audiences won’t be disappointed by the musical production that continues through Sunday in Hartford.
Just because the first act was such a drag, I give this road tour of “Cats” on Jan. 29, 2 3/4 stars ‑ 2 for the first act and 3 ½ for the second.
“Cats” continues at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford tonight, Wednesday, and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Matinees are on Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.
For tickets, visit Bushnell.org