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Tuesday , November 24 2020

Dench is the special effect in ‘Cats’

Stellar cast brings blockbuster act

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy in a scene from ‘Cats.’ (AP)

There’s apparently enough groundbreaking technology  used in “Cats” for NASA to send a rocket  to unexplored parts of the universe – perhaps to  a far-off planet where cats sing, dance on two legs,  and recite T.S. Eliot poetry in half-Cockney accents.  But let’s forget the much-discussed “digital fur  technology” used to turn stars like Jennifer Hudson,  Taylor Swift and Idris Elba into state-of-the-art, fabulous  felines. Spoiler (or spoiled milk) alert: It’s not  the technology that makes a whisker of difference  here (sorry for the cat puns, but if you see this film,  you’d better get used to them).  No, it’s an old-school quality that’s the real “special  effect” worth talking about in ”Cats,” the new  film version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber juggernaut  that launched the mega-musical in the ’80s:  veteran stage talent.

Case one: Judi Dench, who can  take any silliness and somehow make it genuine and  moving, even in a computer-generated cat suit. Case  two: her old friend Ian McKellen, who can embody  an aging cat as well as he can Gandalf or Macbeth  (which he once played opposite Dench). Case three:  James Corden, who, let’s not forget, is a Tony-winning  stage actor especially good at slapstick, which  he uses here to amusing effect. 

Bottom line: However you feel about “Cats” the  show – and let’s face it, some love it and some hate  it, exactly as it will be with this film – give director  Tom Hooper credit for assembling a cast that knows  its way around a stage. This estimable group includes,  along with the theater veterans, music stars  like Hudson and Swift, who each make the most of  one blockbuster number suited to their talents. It includes  movie stars like Elba – who talks and growls  more than sings — and Rebel Wilson, a “Gumbie  cat” who really should be called a “Raunchy cat.” 

And dance stars. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler  (“Hamilton”) brings in top talents like Robbie  Fairchild, the former New York City Ballet principal  dancer who can sing and act, too, besides being  one of the most graceful cats in the alley. Alongside  him dances Francesca Hayward, a principal dancer  with the Royal Ballet, in the ingenue role of Victoria,  and other stars of ballet, tap dance and hip hop.  Before explaining the plot – and really, there’s  never been much to explain – a brief primer: “Cats”  is not so much a show as a cultural phenomenon.  It ran in London’s West End for 21 years, and on  Broadway for 18. Those are just the original productions;  it has been performed in more than 50 countries  and in 19 languages. 

All this for a show with no real narrative arc, based  on a series of poems adapted by Webber from Eliot’s  1939 “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” Here, as  opposed to the stage show, the action is set in 1930s  London, where Eliot would have lived.  It is Victoria (Hayward) who begins our story.  The innocent young newcomer is unceremoniously  dumped by her owner in an alleyway. Suddenly she  is surrounded by cats – the Jellicle cats, who have  come together for the annual Jellicle Ball. (Their  opening song, “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” is  addictively catchy.) 

Authenticity 

The ball marks the night when one lucky cat is  chosen to rise skyward to the “Heaviside Layer,”  and be reborn. The choice lies with Old Deuteronomy,  the grand old patriarch, who traditionally was  a man – but this is the #MeToo era, and besides,  they got Dame Judi Dench – so, He is a She. Dench,  whose slated appearance in the original London  show was thwarted by injury, takes her appointed  place here, and lends the proceedings needed heft  and authenticity.  If Dench embodies good, Elba’s character, the  green-eyed Macavity, embodies evil. He’s desperate  to win the ball’s prize, even if he has to abduct  every other cat he’s competing with. 

But before the ball, each cat sings what amounts to  a personal audition song – sort of “A Chorus Line”  for ambitious felines. They include Jennyanydots,  played by Wilson in her usual raunchy, anythinggoes  style. (“Stop milking it!” she meows.) Jennyanydots  lives in her owner’s kitchen and sleeps by  day, but dances with cockroaches by night.  Bustopher Jones (Corden) is the well-groomed  glutton, in spats, who eats his way through his entertaining  number.

We also Gus (short for Asparagus)  played by McKellen, an elderly feline who recounts  a life in the theater, and the younger Mistoffelees  (Laurie Davidson), a magician in training. There’s  Rum Tum Tugger (singer Jason Derulo in an charismatic  performance), the evening’s heartthrob.  And then we have Bombalurina! Swift enters dangling  from on high on a moon crescent for her number,  an appropriately showy piece about her partner  in crime, Macavity the mystery cat (it rhymes with  “depravity”).

Bombalurina is, well, pretty much  everything you’d expect or want in a cat version of  Taylor Swift.  But the big number in “Cats” is, and will always  be, “Memory,” sung by Grizabella (Hudson), a former  Glamour Cat who’s now shunned, and looking  for redemption. Hudson sings this song twice  (always crying), so don’t worry if you don’t hear  the full belt the first time – it’s coming. (Broadway  stalwarts may still miss the famous Betty Buckley  version.) 

Does all this work? Well, it depends on how you  feel about … “Cats.” Did you love the show? You’ll  find stuff to love here. Did you hate it? Ditto! Or  maybe … you’ll have both reactions? That’s possible  too.  And “Cats” will live on. This is a piece of pop  culture that has way more than nine lives.  “Cats,” a Universal Studios release, has been rated  PG by the Motion Picture Association of America  “for some rude and suggestive humor.” Running  time: 110 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.  (AP)

By Jocelyn Novec


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