“Jellicle cats, come out tonight; Jellicle cats, come one, come all,” sings Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench). “The Jellicle moon is shining bright; Jellicle cats, come to the Jellicle Ball!” At the Ball, Old Deuteronomy will choose one cat to rise to Heavyside Layer (i.e., heaven) for rebirth into another life. That’s the setup — and plot — of “Cats,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical based on T.S. Eliot’s witty poems from “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”
Which one of the 20-odd Jellicles will Old Deuteronomy choose? Must each cat have its own — long — solo performance? Is this, as critic Leah Greenblatt writes, “cinematic lunacy”? Or not? For answers, see “Cats.”
Francesca Hayward, a principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet, is sweet as Victoria. She’s a naïve London house cat, abandoned in the night by her owners. She meets, one by one, two dozen street-smart cats who call themselves “Jellicles.” They perform a non-stop talent show for Victoria and Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench). We watch, too.
Among the performers are Taylor Swift (Bombalurina), Jennifer Hudson (Grizabella), Ian McKellen (Gus the Theatre Cat), Rebel Wilson (Jennyanydots), James Cordon (Bustopher Jones), Idris Elba (Macavity), Laurie Davidson (Mr. Mistoffelees), Jason Derulo (Rum Tum Tugger), Robbie Fairchild (Munkustrap), Mette Towley (Cassandra), Naoimh Morgan (Rumpleteazer), Ray Winston (Growltiger), Laurent Bourgeois (Socrates), and another baker’s dozen.
Directed by Tom Hooper, “Cats” transposes Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 mega-hit stage musical (21 years in London, 18 years in New York City) to the big screen. Film critics, however, have not been impressed — “Cats,” the movie, gets a score of only 32, based on 50 separate reviews, at Megacritic.com. “Two hours of stray cats introducing themselves,” says Jake Cole (Slant Magazine); “warbling piffle,” writes Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian); “kitschapalooza,” from Manohla Dargis (The New York Times). I don’t think it’s that bad, but pleasures are often uneven. Eliot’s poems (adapted by Lloyd Webber) are clever, but not always understandable. Eve Stewart’s production design is eye-catching, if sometimes cluttered and gaudy. The plot — what there is of it — is thin and, at times, invisible. “Memory” — the show’s big hit — brings goosebumps, but do we need to hear it three times? Still, I like “Cats” for what it is, and Steven McRae’s tap-dancing as Skimbleshanks the Railroad Cat is astonishing.
Rated PG for rude and suggestive humor — a lot of “bobbing butts,” as one critic put it — “Cats” runs 110 minutes. It may seem longer.
“Who will be the Jellicle cat?”
That’s the question, where it’s at:
Grizabella or Munkustrap?
Want an answer? Lloyd Webber’s “Cats.”