I still have my ticket stub from the July 27, 1983 performance of CATS at the Wintergarden Theatre on Broadway. It was a Wednesday matinee and my orchestra seat cost $35. Betty Buckley played Grizabella the Glamour Cat. She sang “Memory.” I was hooked. I will always be a fan of the music. I will continue to defend the songs, the dancing, and the whimsical appeal of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic stage production.
I can’t, however, defend the movie. It simply doesn’t work.
I suspect it was doomed from the start, even with accomplished director Tom Hooper (The Danish Girl, Les Miserables, The King’s Speech) and the cat’s meow of bankable stars like Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson and Idris Elba.
The story is based on poems about cats, and the cast is painted in fur.
The movie has the best of intentions. Taylor Swift collaborated with Webber on a brand new song called “Beautiful Ghosts” that is, in fact, quite beautiful and holds its own against the original soundtrack. The dancing and choreography are at times mesmerizing and joyful. Professional ballerina Francesca Hayward makes a graceful leap to the big screen as a shy kitten named Victoria. Jennifer Hudson belts out a strong rendition of “Memory.” Dench and McKellen radiate gravitas, as always.
So what’s the problem?
They’re all painted in fur. It’s really, really hard to get past that.
And then there’s the plot. For those of us well-versed in the lyrics, it all makes purrrfect sense: a tribe of cats known as the Jellicles come together once a year at the Jellicle Ball to decide which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn into a new life. Will it be the vain rock ‘n roll cat Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), the flirtatious feline Bombalurina (Swift), Macavity the mystery cat (Elba, miscast with a look not befitting 2018’s Sexiest Man Alive), the magical Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), the remarkably fat cat Bustopher Jones (James Corden), Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat (Steven McRae), Jennyanydots the Gumbie Cat (Wilson), or perhaps Gus the Theatre Cat (McKellen) or Grizabella the homeless former glamour cat? All are in the running. The wise and revered Old Deuteronomy (Dench) will make the final call.
Those unfamiliar with the show will probably wonder WTF is going on and be tempted to bail in the first hour. Fans will be curious enough to stick it out. Some may even lap it up.
For the most part, the movie follows the same narrative track as the stage production. But the emotion doesn’t translate, and neither does the wardrobe.
I wanted to feel what I felt when Betty Buckley captivated the live audience in 1983. I didn’t. Not even close.
Let that memory live again. The movie – I can do without.