Tuesday, July 23, 2024

“Cats: The Jellicle Ball” Lands on Its Feet

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When I was little, five or six, I was taken to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running juggernaut musical “Cats.” My parents knew that I was already a big fan of cats (the species), and they had strategically hyped Lloyd Webber’s source material, T. S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” What they didn’t know was that I was extremely nearsighted—I had never thought to mention it, but I couldn’t see anything more than three inches from my face. I remember my blurry toddler life before “Cats” (and glasses) as a mist, out of which books and snacks gently materialized. But in the night-black New London Theatre, during a bit of “fun,” fourth-wall-breaking crowd work, a spandex-clad dancer in leg warmers with a glowing cat-eye light on her head pounced onto my lap. Was theatre supposed to be this terrifying? I immediately started sobbing.

Some forty years later, screaming and, indeed, discreet sobbing are actually the appropriate reactions to the ecstatic, quasi-immersive production of “Cats: The Jellicle Ball,” at PAC NYC. The directors Zhailon Levingston and Bill Rauch have reënvisioned Lloyd Webber’s cheese-tastic musical as an event on the queer, largely Black and Latinx ballroom circuit, the once underground drag milieu introduced to the mainstream in works such as the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning” and the TV show “Pose.” This type of ballroom features voguing dance battles and catwalk strut-offs, and so the directors have deliberately orchestrated a raucous crowd response. When André De Shields, a Broadway icon, appears as the kinglike Old Deuteronomy, in a purple suit (designed by Qween Jean) and a white-and-purple ombré lion’s mane, the audience’s din of approval becomes his royal fanfare. And the longer the contestants sashay the more the room urges them to greatness. “Deliver! Deliver!” one theatregoer next to me shouted.

Given “Cats” ’s dominance—it ran on Broadway for eighteen years—it’s difficult to remember that, in 1981, Lloyd Webber’s synthesizer-forward musical interpretation of Eliot’s whimsical poems seemed like a sure loser. Eliot’s verses have no connecting narrative, so Lloyd Webber and his director, Trevor Nunn, corralled them into a junk-yard revue in which various cats jockey for a prize from Old Deuteronomy, who will select one to ascend to “the Heaviside Layer.” If you overlook the nine-lives-are-a-burden, death-wish aspect—which the musical strongly encourages you to do—“Cats” originally played as a cross between a children’s song cycle and a dance fantasia consisting of eroticized aerobics, which were very much a thing in the eighties. (Schlock the show may have been, but I wasn’t the only one who fell for it.)

To accommodate this new ballroom incarnation, PAC NYC’s huge, flexible space has been arranged around a runway, designed by Rachel Hauck, with cabaret tables on three sides. Adam Honoré lights the cavernous environment with rich fuchsias and restless spotlights, which keep catching Jean’s gorgeously glamazon costumes like jewels in the dark. The choreographers Arturo Lyons and Omari Wiles send the ensemble down that catwalk in a militarily precise flying wedge, then let each performer spin off into extraordinary solos, in which they perform dips and smash splits, often ending up lying down in voguing’s signature attitude: one leg up, head thrown back. (It’s a charming coincidence that cats spend a lot of time with one paw in the air.)

Levingston and Rauch’s melding of “Cats” and the queer ballroom scene is so effortless that it seems to have required only the slightest alterations. The synthesizer groove has been juiced up with some new club beats by Trevor Holder, the directors have added a plotlet about the naughty thief Macavity (Antwayn Hopper) getting rumbled by the cops, and the entire number “Growltiger’s Last Stand,” in which the titular tom hates “cats of foreign name and race,” has been tastefully deleted. The true difference, though, lies in the piece’s shift from commercialized kitsch to camp sincerity. The performers here—among them the magnificent dancer Robert (Silk) Mason as Mistoffelees, with Cher hair swinging long, and the ultra-charismatic Hopper as Macavity, who can control the room just by dropping his hat—appear to be dancing for the love of it, and for one another. As the show goes on, a more mysterious literary synchrony emerges: how wonderful that Eliot, in 1939, placed such an emphasis on the power of names known only to those who understand you, and on a thriving community’s reverence for its elders.

In ball culture, competitors are organized by houses, and the show pays homage to these structures of found family, often by casting performers from the scene itself. At one point in “Jellicle Ball,” we see a slide sequence of famous housemothers going back fifty years, including Crystal LaBeija, the Black trans legend who co-founded the Royal House of LaBeija, in 1972, and Grizabella, “founder of the House of Glamour.” In “Jellicle Ball,” Grizabella, a.k.a. the Glamour Cat, is played by “Tempress” Chasity Moore; she will win over Old Deuteronomy with her plaintive song “Memory,” the bathetic, earwormy ballad that steamrolls every effort to resist it. At first, Moore prowls melodramatically at the edges of the action, seeming awkward and at sea. But her climactic rendition of the song stops the show. “I can dream of the old days, life was beautiful then,” she sings, center stage at last. She sends her voice low, shaking us somewhere down under our feet, as if a subway were passing. I felt as though it were my first time at “Cats” all over again. Something had been blurry, and then there it was, all of a sudden—shockingly real and close.

A day after I saw “Jellicle Ball,” I went to one of the last performances of “Can I Be Frank?,” a bitingly funny tribute to a very different queer forebear, created by the comedian and activist Morgan Bassichis at the recently refurbished Club at La Mama. In that same venue, during the grittier days of the late nineteen-eighties, the artist and musician Frank Maya began doing talk pieces called rants, which launched him into a brief but important standup career. (He was one of the few out comedians in the nineties to make it onto network television.) Maya’s manic style involved long, discursive, sometimes personal speeches about, for example, a parent who wants to “cure” his gay child—“Dad! You know the only cure for being gay is fame!”—and men who don’t maintain their oomph. He also did a lot of material about death.

Bassichis first heard about Maya while attending an artists’ residency—it’s “when you go to have sex with people somewhere else,” they explain, helpfully—and fell into an obsession with the comic, who died from AIDS complications in 1995. Maya had a “selfishness that was political,” Bassichis relays, interrupting their re-creations of Maya’s routines to confess to their own paradoxical feelings of anxiety and grandeur. Sam Pinkleton, the director of Cole Escola’s hit show “Oh, Mary!,” also worked on “Frank,” and Bassichis makes comic hay out of having a “big Broadway guy” involved. “We’ll fly this in,” Bassichis says confidently, shoving a ratty set of stairs across the floor. Bassichis tries various things to honor Maya, or perhaps, in some odd way, to get his posthumous attention, including a bit in which they receive a letter, supposedly from their dead idol.

Maya didn’t live long enough to become a queer elder; for so many reasons, there are now too few. Yet Bassichis clearly yearns to know what Maya might have thought of their work. It reminded me of André De Shields, seventy-eight years old and glorious, sitting on his throne at the judging table, watching the “Jellicle Ball” ensemble perform. There’s a tether between De Shields and the younger dancers, taut as a wire, and life force runs through it. No wonder so much of ballroom culture is founded on competition: parents who truly see a queer child are sometimes hard to come by, but a judge—and an audience—will watch intently, every time. ♦

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