Tuesday, 27 September 2016

'Cats' the Motion Picture

A little while ago it was announced that Tom Hooper, director of the film version of 'Les Miserables', is working on a live action feature film of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Cats'. Universal Pictures has owned the rights for decades and an animated feature film was to have been produced in the early 1990s by Steven Spielberg's Amblimation who got so far as to produce concept art before the plug was pulled.
At the time 'Cats' was intended to have been classic 2D character animation on top of background models which would have been created from the concept art. Spielberg had apparently come up with the idea that 'Cats' was to have taken place in a Blitzed London of the World War 2 period and the concept work reflects this. The artists explored London (alongside the original designer of 'Cats', John Napier) to discover the unseen side of London replete with tip-sights and the remaining scars of wrecked London (no doubt, long since replaced).
It's also intriguing that noted playwright Tom Stoppard created a script that impressed Lloyd Webber.

You can see examples of the concept art here:

Of course, had that production happened it would, no doubt, look rather dated given that most animation these days is 3D CGI and while the art work produced offers a tantalising hint of what may have been, it may have long been forgotten as being a quaint piece.
Now, with the re-emergence of the live-action musical feature, 'Cats' is once again in the offing - though as a live-action feature rather than an animated one, which is perhaps the more obvious choice for feature film translation.
Numerous problems now face the new film-makers in translating one of the more inherently theatrical musicals into something that viably works on the big screen. How to resolve those issues are, no doubt, what the creatives are currently working on.

The biggest issue facing them must be the idea that the felines are to be portrayed by a human cast. On stage this is not really a problem given theatre audiences are more forgiving and readily willing to suspend their disbelief. This is not so when it comes to movies, so a way must be found for a film audience to buy into the human playing a cat idea. One answer is to have the human play the equivalent of a cat. Or to put it another way, have a 'real' cat (i.e. a filmed feline or CGI creation of one) replaced at some point by a human who would go on to portray that particular cat throughout the majority of the movie (assuming that the human reverts to the feline creature at the film's end).

Personally, I am a more forgiving viewer when it comes to film musicals but this is something I have occasionally pondered - hence my answer to the question above. On film, of course, a sequence must be created in order to establish that idea, to give a reason for its happening, in order to give the audience the chance to buy into the premise. The idea that sprung into my mind follows.

The plot of 'Cats' revolves around a tribe of felines meeting up in a junkyard on the one night of the year where their leader, 'Old Deuteronomy', elects which of them shall be granted a new life and ascension to the fabled 'Heaviside Layer'. Of course, on film, the plot may be substantially re-written (as has happened to other films adapted from stage musicals) though I do wonder to what purpose this route might be taken. Rather, let's assume that the plot remains largely intact, even the idea of the junkyard as the location. Naturally the junkyard can be composed of numerous areas of interest, rather than the basic location as used onstage, but this is really not that relevant at this point.

So, we have cats congregating in one place - cats of various backgrounds and from various locations around London (since London locations are predominant throughout T S Eliot's poems this would make sense).
We have the one night of the year, under the 'Jellicle Moon', when this happens.
We have the idea woven throughout a number of the lyrics and the original staging that gives the cats a mystical, magical property ('Mister Mistoffelees' being an obvious element, not to mention the idea of the 'Heaviside Layer') and I would utilise that idea from the start.

So ...

Night is falling over London. We are somewhere in the East End, some years before any urban regeneration takes place. The sun is setting amidst clouds as we see a cat leaving its human home via an open window. We follow it down little-used back-alleys, shadow falling all around.
Elsewhere, another cat crosses a road, cars flashing past. Another cat. And another. All of various types and sizes. They are moving with a purpose. One or two join each other in their journey.
We see the rubbish tip toward which the felines are travelling. It is in an undisclosed location in the East End and is littered with detritus from the numerous decades of its existence. Naturally it contains at least one prominent automobile wreck, a large tyre laying next to it. This prominent feature will come to form the centre of the cats' festivities. There are various level spaces of differing sizes (to fascilitate the forthcoming dances). The junkyard backs on to some old buildings that, at first, look derelict but are, in reality, inhabited by a human or two.
A dry thunderstorm is brewing, the cloud cover quite voluminous. Flashes of lightning illuminate the near distance as thunder rolls. The junkyard, inanimate as it is, seems to begin to thrum with energy, with life. Something is happening. The cats sense it too but appear undisturbed by the atmospheric events themselves. One by one they look up as the full moon is glimpsed through the clouds.
The cats get nearer and nearer to the tip which, if my mind is not wandering, appears to glow here and there for brief moments at a time.
Suddenly a huge crack of thunder and a searing bolt of lightning strikes the prominent automobile wreck, sending huge amounts of sparks out and across the yard. Simultaneously the 'Cats' Overture begins. The winds pick up, pushing the voluminous clouds away. As the cats wait at the edge of the tip the moon is finally revealed in all its glory, its ethereal glow illuminating the junkyard which sizzles with new-found electrical energy, creating an effect which pays homage to the strip lights of the stage-version. The cats sit up at attention, prone, waiting. The tip glows, releasing some sort of energy into the atmosphere as the moon's light does the same from the opposite direction. Beyond this sphere of light we begin to see one, two pairs of cats eyes peering through the darkness beyond. More and more eyes appear as the Overture builds. Throughout we see various parts of the junkyard, various pieces of junk which may, or may not, be used later. the ghostly light build alongside the music until, suddenly, a cat breaches the border between light and dark. The music ends as it does so. The magic illumination of the tip fades but the moon's magic light remains and as the cat crosses the light border we see a magical transformation: the cat's front paw is the first to enter the light and as it does it transforms into a humanoid hand, a humanoid arm. Bit by bit as the cat enters the light its feline body is transmogrified into that of a feline in human form. Once this metamorphosis is complete (and it is done so in a matter of seconds) the cat contemplates its form. As another cat begins to enter the light the Prologue, 'Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats, begins. As they enter the moonlight each cat in turn is transformed.

Of course the sequence could be inverted: we could see the junkyard first, the lightning strike and beginning of Overture. Throughout the music we see the supernatural events of the tip and the moon whist inter-cutting with the cats leaving their homes and making their way to the junkyard (which in this case would be emitting an illumination seen from a distance which attracts the cats).

Though the intensity of the moonlight will fade throughout the opening it will remain a potent force and on the odd occasion we will see the cats in their natural form again, when the cloud cover is great enough to obscure the moon. There may even be an occasion, during a more placid moment, when we see a cat or two transform to a natural cat and back again as a large cloud swiftly passes over. For it is the moon that is magical here. The moon that is so revered by these felines who, now and again, will glance at it in awe, until finally the 'Heaviside Layer' is revealed.

Now, I've no idea what the film-makers are planning to do but this is an example of how I'd approach 'Cats' as a movie. Naturally these ideas are mine and, as far as I'm aware, no one else shares them. All Rights Reserved and all that ...

Sunday, 18 September 2016

"Cats", Glasgow King's Theatre, 13/9/16

Review written for Backstage Pass:


Since its premiere in 1981 Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats" has become an iconic musical that sits firmly among the pantheon of musical greats. Heralding the era of the "mega-musical" at the beginning of the '80s due to its epic staging and design "Cats" could potentially look and feel rather quaint in comparison to recent musicals. As it is "Cats" really has nothing to compare to it and remains a powerful theatrical production. "Cats" has had many lives with various changes along the way and this current production is based on the incarnation that appeared at the London Palladium in recent years.

Based on T. S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" the lyrics (i.e. Eliot's poems) are full of wit and pathos and Lloyd Webber's setting of them is, for the most part, quite exceptional. The musical contains some of his catchiest material and features what may be his most iconic composition, "Memory". Some of the changes made, including the updated "Rum Tum Tugger" and other reworked musical sequences, are not always for the better but the show still packs a powerful, mesmerising punch.

Set around the one night of the year when cats congregate for the "Jellicle Ball" we are witness to the various cats singing and dancing about their exploits in the hope that they will be the one chosen to ascend to the "Heaviside Layer" and attain a new life (ultimately a surprisingly moving moment onstage). There really is little more than that to the musical which is, perhaps, more of an experience to enjoy than a story to follow, but "Cats" has never pretended to be anything other than what it is and makes no pretensions otherwise. 

John Napier's famous junkyard set is still a sight to behold despite being somewhat squeezed onto the King's Theatre stage (the dancers cope effortlessly with any spacing issues) and Napier's costumes remain equally as exciting and original whilst the lighting by Howard Eaton (original lighting by David Hersey) is dynamic and integral to the production. 

The sound design is en pointe and the orchestra is strong, albeit a little thin when compared to the original's orchestrations, and manages to convey most of the nuances in Lloyd Webber's score.

Trevor Nunn's direction and Gillian Lynne's choreography (essential in the story telling) still hold up with sequences that continue to thrill and move the audience with Lynne's dances remaining some of the most stirring to appear onstage (Bill Deamer is credited with the "Gumby Cat" tap choreography, one of the recent amendments, which fits well with the rest of the production).

The production is blessed with a cast who sing and dance confidently and with seaming ease. It is perhaps unfair to pick out any one performer but Marianne Benedict's "Grizabella" is the emotional heart of the show and her performance is an artful display of the former glamour and regality of the cat's past infused with the tragedy of her present. Benedict's powerful voice created a stirring "Memory" that prompted applause from the audience well before the song had ended. Matt Krzan's "Munkastrap" is a confident leader and the "Old Deuteronomy" of Kevin Stephen-Jones is a noble and gentle creation.Greg Castiglioni's "Gus" is a moving and tender portrayal and welcome respite amongst the frenetic action throughout. Shiv Rabheru as "Mistoffelees", Joe Henry and Emily Langham as "Mungojerrie" and "Rumpelteazer", not to mention Marquelle Ward as "Rum Tum Tugger, Lucinda Shaw's "Jennyanydots" and Lee Greenaway as "Skimbleshanks" are among the many shining lights of an energetic and kinetic company that is filled with engaging performers strong in voice and body. 

It may be a product of its time but "Cats" remains one of those awe-inspiring theatrical experiences which will truly live in the memory (pardon the pun) "now and forever" and I hope it continues to capture the imagination of audiences young and old.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

"Kinky Boots", Adelphi Theatre, London, 29/7/16

Joyous, ebullient, engaging and thoroughly entertaining, "Kinky Boots" is a wondrous musical experience that lifts the spirit and rejuvenates the soul. Based on the film - inspired by a true story - the musical tells the story of Charlie Price who reluctantly takes over the failing family shoe factory in Northampton following his father's death. In London he encounters Lola, a drag queen, who inspires him to reinvent his product to save the factory and its workforce. Along the way Lola and Charlie discover love and acceptance and overcome prejudice and fatherly expectation.

The score by Cyndi Lauper may not be the most musically complex but it perfectly suits the tone of the show and is a major element in the uplifting power of the show. Harvey Fierstein's book follows the original movie quite closely, adapting the plot well for the stage. Though the plot details are streamlined somewhat this is all to the benefit of the show's focus: Charlie and Lola and their relationship. Only in such a musical could the detail omitted be acceptable and yet the story remain so very clear. This is, of course, due in part to the director and choreographer, Jerry Mitchell, who works the stage really well, supported by a set design that looks perfect and costumes that light up the stage.

The cast are nothing short of excellent and one must feel a tad sorry for Killian Donnelly who plays 'Charlie' as his role - and perfect acting - is naturally overshadowed by Matt Henry's 'Lola', a dynamic force of nature if ever there were one. Together the partnership is a dream and the contrast between parts is perfectly attuned and each presents a three-dimensional character who elicits a strong response from the audience. The supporting roles are equally as charged and Lola's 'Angels', the drag queens who support her, are beyond entertaining and their use throughout the show is brilliant.

"Kinky Boots" is a truly uplifting production and a show with a message that, while not exactly subtle, does not overpower the show in any negative aspect. In a turbulent world "Kinky Boots" is a pure joy and exactly the entertainment needed to remind us how wonderful people can really be.