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THEATER REVIEW: “Cats” at North Park Theatre

It’s always been difficult for this literal-minded critic to accept the nonsensical premise that cats (of which I have owned many) dance, sing or want to be reincarnated (despite their reputed nine lives). So Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster song-and-dance revue “Cats” has never been a favorite of mine.

Despite that, “Cats” ran 18 years, to become Broadway’s the second longest-running show ever. (Lloyd Webber also wrote the No. 1 show in that category, “Phantom Of The Opera.”)

San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of “Cats” offers fine voices, energetic dancing, fun costumes and lots of audience interaction. If you’re willing to accept the premise, there are pleasures to be had in this show.

James Vasquez directs and has made it a feast for the eyes. The show is based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats,” a group of poetic descriptions of different types of London cats. It takes place in a junkyard (and this set, by Fullerton Civic Light Opera, deserves a medal of its own).

The plot, such as it is, has the cats – including senior citizen Old Deuteronomy (Kürt Norby) – preparing for the Jellicle Ball, where the old man will pick one cat to be reincarnated into a new life. Several cats will vie for that honor in song and dance.

The songs (aside from the well-known “Memory”) are difficult, full of words with local (or British) references, and mostly meant to be sung while executing long and tricky dance routines. It’s a tough job; this game cast dives in with energy and demonstrates great dancing chops if not always sufficient diction to get the words across.

The cats vary in age from kittens like Arielle Meads’ lovely ballerina Victoria to washed-up glamourpuss Grizabella (Debbie Prutsman), now shunned by the group for having left the tribe years ago to to explore the world.

Old Deuteronomy, the éminence grise of the group, is well played and sung by Kürt Norby.

Michael Parrott gives panache to cat-about-town Bustopher Jones, and also does justice to Gus (Asparagus) – the retired theater cat – and to Growltiger, a pirate cat.

And there’s independent Rum Tum Tugger (Justin Ray), who wants what he wants (which is never what you give him) and who “will do as he do do, and there’s no doing anything about it.” Now there’s a cat I recognize.

Steven Rada and Joy Newbegin amuse as “notorious cat burglars” Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, who can also do some pretty impressive tumbling.

Kyrsten Hafso-Koppman (as Jellylorum and Griddlebone) is a standout, especially in the funny faux operatic aria “Una Tepida Notte.”

Dylan Hoffinger, dressed in shiny black, makes the most of “Mistoffelees “the magical cat” and Jeffrey Scott Parsons dances up a storm as Skimbleshanks the railway cat.

But my favorite is Macavity (Keith Johnson), “a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity” who commits all sort of feline felonies. But when a crime’s discovered, “Macavity’s not there.”

Choreographer Janet Renslow does herself and SDMT proud with wonderfully energetic, even athletic and gymnastic routines that take way more energy than I have ever seen a cat expend.

Don LeMaster leads the fine 16-member orchestra through its musical paces.

Old Deuteronomy points out that “a cat is not a dog,” and by the same token, “Cats” is not a typical musical comedy. But it’s got some awfully good singing and hoofing.

The details

San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of “Cats” plays through April 6 at the North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave.

Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (858) 560-5740 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.