Cats in Israel: Not a Musical, but a Concept

Michael Handelzalts
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Cats, the musical.Credit: Cats Production Ltd
Michael Handelzalts

I love cats, and I love musicals. So it’s obvious that I have no choice but to love a musical about cats, particularly when it has been successful all over the world for more than 30 years, has several records to its credit (for awhile it was the long-running musical in West End history, and is still the second-longest-running one ever on Broadway), and a list of renowned creators such as T.S. Eliot (high culture, poetry, inspiration), Andrew Lloyd Webber (music), Trevor Nunn (original direction), Gillian Lynne (choreography), John Napier (design) and Cameron Mackintosh (production).

The production at Tel Aviv’s Heichal Hatarbut was a new one created this year for a British touring company, based on the original production (directed by Chrissie Cartwright), which was brought to Israel in its entirety: the varied junkyard scenery, and finally there is justification for renovating the Heichal Hatarbut, since in its previous form Grizabella never could have risen to heaven in a storm on a spacecraft with flickering blue lights, lighting full of effects (including a follow-spot that lights up a row in the audience) and a highly skilled and talented group of singer-actor-dancer-cats. Since the program contains only a list of “understudies,” I cannot tell who sang, danced or meowed what. I can only be impressed with the almost 30 pirouettes of Mr. Mistoffelees; the elderly charm of Gus, the theater cat; the authority of Old Deuteronomy; and the terror sown by Macavity. The sound amplification was done well, and there are subtitles, and screens on the side of the stage that allow us to see the cats’ faces. In short, it is Broadway in Tel Aviv.

Who can resist the charm of such felines?

Now that I have said all that, I will admit that this is the first time I have seen “Cats” on the stage, because I know cats. There is no point in running after them. Let them come to you. And these are not really cats – rather, they are excellent singer-dancers wearing bodysuits, cat makeup and long tails. Also, it’s not really a musical. True, there are characters, but there is no story, no plot. It is a concept musical held together by an idea, and it created a fashion: a musical about steam engines was created later on, with the actors on skates.

But “Cats” was the first, and it is actually a revue. There is a series of musical numbers in a variety of styles, and you find yourself tapping to the beat and moving in rhythm as you watch, impressed by the choreography. One hit song, “Memory,” sung by the elderly Grizabella, is mercilessly milked: the end of Act One, the beginning of Act Two, and toward the end. Besides “Memory,” one can whistle the set and tap out the rest.

And about Grizabella’s song: What is the difference between cats and musicals? Cats do not care what you think about them, and they make no effort to curry favor. But musicals are eager for the audience to like them. So in this production, one verse of “Memory” is sung in Hebrew, and during the curtain calls, the cats speak Hebrew to the audience, stirring them to even greater applause. Ask your cat what he thinks about that.

The audience in Heichal Hatarbut loved it, and I have no complaints either. I give it an 8 on the meow scale, because only the god of felines gets a 10, and no one, not even T.S. Eliot, knows who he may be.

“Cats,” by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn, based on poems by T.S. Eliot. Choreography: Gillian Lynne. Set design: John Napier. A touring production from Britain. Director: Chrissie Cartwright. Producer of the tour in Israel: Moshe Yosef. Heichal Hatarbut, Tel Aviv. Two hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. In English with Hebrew subtitles.

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