Come one come all to the Jellicle Ball!

Preview by Alyssa Taylor

I remember growing up, rushing down to the battered library in a town of maybe 1000 people to rent my favourite musical on VHS every week. I remember the pure joy in riding my bike back home with that movie in my bag. I remember sitting in front of a large tube TV, cross legged and wide-eyed as the opening number of Cats began.

And now all those songs return to my head, somehow rather like riding a bicycle, as the whimsy and magic of Cats comes back to life on December 20th. The beloved musical first enraptured audiences in 1981 when Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of Phantom of the Opera and winner of seven Tony Awards, took T.S. Eliot’s 1939 Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and set Eliot’s poetic verse to his own original music, giving life to Cats.

The show has been running on and off since 1981 on Broadway and was even turned into a feature film in 1998, though the film stuck to music theatre traditions as it was set on a stage. As a child this was much like having a front row seat in a theatre.

For those unfamiliar with it, the story revolves around a tribe of cats, called Jellicles, that partake in a ritual in which one worthy Jellicle is chosen to be reborn. As cats have nine lives, it is necessary to chose who gets to move onto their next life first.

Calamity, chaos, mischief and fun run is rampant as the Jellicles show off and compete to prove who is worthy of being reborn. Each Jellicle has a unique, wild, and sometimes hilarious personality, and they show it through their dances and stories.

Director Tom Hooper, also known for The Kings Speech and the 2012 adaptation of Les Miserables, has tackled yet another Broadway favourite. Hooper brings Cats from Broadway to the big screen and spares no effort. While the film seems to honour Broadway traditions, it is moving above and beyond to create an entirely new world for Jellicles.

The outstanding sets are full of colour and life, and tower above the Jellicles to create an illusion of a world through a cat’s eyes. The brilliance of the costumes manage to merge the original costume design, that I personally loved growing up, and the realistic qualities achieved with some brilliant CGI.

But this does not come without its share of controversy and criticisms, as some critics have described the CGI as horrifying and unnerving. While CGI may not be exactly ‘new’ anymore that doesn’t mean it is perfected, and it is beyond difficult to achieve effects like realistic fur. If someone had tried to do this even five years ago the result would have been entirely different, and certainly not as good. Some of the critics also happen to be some of the same people who thought similar things of the original musical, so I suppose the styling of Cats may simply not be for everyone.

The cast is beyond wild with talented singers, actors, comedians, and dancers all joining the madness. Idris Elba plays Macavity, a mysterious cat who has “broken every human law” and is wanted by Scotland Yard, and, with a more dominant role than in the original musical, it will be amazing to see this villain set loose.

Jennifer Hudson stars as the shunned and rejected Grizabella. Grizabella has one of the most famous musical numbers, ‘Memory’, and this is the number we actually hear parts of in the first trailer. Taylor Swift, who after the AMAs is now one of the most award-winning artists, is in her largest acting role yet: she plays the role of Bombalurina, a confident and self-obsessed Jellicle with a penchant for flirting. Jason Derulo plays the curious Rum Tum Tugger, a frisky Jellicle who’s always changing his mind and causing trouble for cats and humans alike.

Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy, the leader of the Jellicles and the one who chooses who will get to be reincarnated into their next life. Traditionally a male role, it will be exciting to see Dench take charge.

Francesca Hayward, well established in the ballet world and a quickly rising star, makes her film debut as the lovely Victoria, the White Cat, who is often seen as the ‘spirit’ of the musical. She is timid, graceful and not prejudiced like many of the other cats. Hayward was a student of the prestigious Royal Ballet School and was offered a contract by the Royal Ballet before she even graduated in 2010. She quickly moved up the ranks and became Principal Dancer in 2016. As Victoria’s role is the Principal Dancer role in Cats and seems to be perfectly suited to Hayward talents.

 Rebel Wilson plays the role of Jennyanydots, a Jellicle who loves napping during the day and keeping an eye on wayward cats. Ian Mckellen, who is no stranger to theatre, plays the role of Gus the Theatre Cat, which seems perfect casting to me. Gus is an old, frail cat who has a lot of history and enjoys spinning it into stories for other cats. James Corden plays the quirky role of Bustopher Jones, an elegant aristo-cat who enjoys fine dining but takes off at the first sight of trouble. And never could I forget to mention Laurie Davidson, who is the marvellous, magical Mr. Mistoffelees. Davidson is best known for his role as William Shakespeare in the short-lived series Will.

The choreographer is Andy Blankenbuehler, who was behind not only the choreography for the 2016 Broadway revival of Cats, but also for Hamilton. With such a soulful and talented group of people I have no worry that this will be the dawning of yet another new era for Cats.

The concerns over the use of CGI in my opinion seem unwarranted, given that if anything should be allowed to be so eccentric, it’s Cats. And with such a talented team working on such a quirky, fun project that all parties seem to be over the moon about, I am not concerned that the film will be terrible. Rather I am concerned that I will not be able to keep myself from singing along while I watch in the theatre.

Cats in is theatres in Canada on December 20, 2019