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As Long as We Remember...

January 13, 2006

''Old Possum'' Eliot

Roy Meachum

When first I saw the musical "Cats," I cannot say. I remember where: Washington's National Theatre, at the very least over a dozen years ago. The alley cat set was darker than it appeared on the stage at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre Tuesday night.

There's a distinct possibility I could be wrong, of course.

When it comes to cultural and entertaining experiences such as movies, plays or books, I possess a blessedly forgetful memory. The trait proves particularly attractive to friends who delight in repeating the same jokes again and again.

Listening half-heartedly, my normal attitude when confronting another's or my own eccentricities, I tend to retain a cautionary reserve, pending the arrival of the moment of clarity. Unfortunately for the teller, my moment usually arrives just before the punch line. Sorry!

Unless truly provoked for whatever reason, most often a need to hurry, I silently endure the teller's coup de grace, with all the patience of a man blindfolded and tied to a post, waiting for the firing squad to have its way.

I do ramble at times.

And I did the other night as T. S. Eliot's words shimmered, sparked and exploded in Andrew Lloyd Weber's melodies in one of the great evenings of American musical theater. Nobel Prize Laureate Eliot and Sir Andrew are two reasons why "Cats" has run strong for nearly 25 years.

The poet from Missouri and the man made baronet by his queen owe much to the genius who designed, created and directed the original production, another knight of Elizabeth II's coterie.

Unlike Sir Andrew who became Lord Weber - or some such - for the millions of pounds his stage works have brought into the Royal Exchequer, Trevor Nunn received the sword dubs on either shoulder for the glory of his contributions to British performing arts, including "Cats."

For my money, I would be more than willing to sit through a simply mounted reading, a heartfelt, schmaltzy rendition of the book Mr. Eliot brought out in 1939, as World War II's dark clouds lowered on the world.

Trevor Nunn's vision of how Old Possum's cats should come to life has been engaging audiences for nearly 25 years and, if anything, his staging, recreated for this touring company by Richard Stafford, holds up.

As someone who misplaces memory of simple jokes, Tuesday's show brought pieces, bits and entire sequences that I simply didn't recognize; but that may have contributed to the evening's total impact, that and a realization of the seemingly endless numbers of very talented people whose names I've never heard.

That's how it was in London where it started and when the production moved on to New York, everybody was a brash up-start; no matter how many years they had smelled greasepaint.

The sole exception was the actress who performed Grizzabella, the hotsy, totsy glamour cat who sings the single song that made the charts. The darling of British musicals, Elaine Paige, created the part, together with "Evita," by the same composer: Andrew Lloyd Weber. She also first launched "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina."

Betty Buckley had the pleasure of having her version of "Memory" make the Broadway cast album. But it was Barbra Streisand's record that topped the charts and guaranteed "Cats" would hang on for a while.

But who would have thought the show based on T. S. Eliot's paean to pussies and kitties would have been performed by professionals 25 years; so long in continuous run that nobody can describe the delightful company at the Hippodrome a revival. It never died to be reborn.

Naturally, I'd like readers to trip over I-70 and find the gloriously restored old vaudeville theater. But this time around I suggest they take along children, who were a strong presence at Tuesday's opening.

In the meanwhile, you will be very well advised to find a copy of "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats;" it's short and very funny. I envy anyone reading Mr. Eliot's delightful characters the first time. It won't be the last. I guarantee.

There were no empty seats Tuesday. But finding tickets are worth the effort and the money. Trust me.

The musical "Cats" crew packs up the sets, lights and props after the last performance a week from Sunday. It would be a shame if you miss it.

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