'Cats' - a nonstop whirl of fantasy - opens national tour

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Musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on ''Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats ,'' by T.S. Eliot. Directed by Trevor Nunn, choreographed by Gillian Lynne. Forget what you have heard about little feet, ''Cats'' has come to town on $3 .6 million.

This is a big spectacle - requiring lots of cash and not a little rejigging of theaters - that has had New Yorkers squealing and raving ever since it rolled onto the Great White Way 14 months ago. After snaring a string of Tony awards, including ''Best Musical,'' ''Cats'' is still selling out on Broadway and in London, where it originally opened in May 1981. Now the fourth ''Cats'' company (No. 3 played Vienna this year) has just opened its national tour with a five-month run in Boston.

The collaborative brainchild of British Wunderkinder Andrew Lloyd Webber (composer for ''Jesus Christ Superstar'' and ''Evita'') and Trevor Nunn (Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director and director of ''Nicholas Nickleby''), ''Cats'' continues to generate the kind of public enthusiasm that has made it nearly critic-proof. It is surely a big song-and-dance extravaganza, and more than one observer has suggested it overwhelms the more subtle, whimsical lyrics of T. S. Eliot's ''Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.''

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A nonstop whirl of fantasy set in a junkyard inhabited by some fast-talking, fast-moving stray cats with such crazy weird names as Munkustrap, Jellylorum, and Rumpleteazer, ''Cats'' is undeniably snappy, slick, and full of style despite a few slip-ups on opening night in Boston. It is truly theater as spectacle - John Napier's award-winning set and costumes are almost worth the price of admission alone. The choreography by Gillian Lynne is energetic if slightly repetitive, and Webber's music, if reminiscent of past hits, is immensely hummable.

The energy level of this cast, slow to ignite in the first half, catches fire in the second. After a series of showstopping numbers complete with flashing lights and Dolby stereo effects, however, one starts to cry out for a little heart, a little felt emotion.

''Cats'' has been criticized for its lack of plot - its structure is one long series of sung anecdotes each featuring a different cat - Rum Tum Tugger, Mr. Mistopffelees, Skimbleshanks, and so on. Director Nunn has described it as ''a hidden narrative'' that is juxtaposed against the sadder tale of the washed-up Grizabella, The Glamour Cat. But American audiences, less familiar with Eliot's verses than their British counterparts are, may find the narrative nearly oblique. There are many obscure English references, and sometimes the lyrics were just plain inaudible over the pounding Webber score.

It's a modern, sugarplum vision that is meant to draw us in, captivate us, and suspend our disbelief, what with all those cats romping up the aisles and the theater-in-the-round effect (which is only partly replicated in Boston's Shubert Theatre, with its proscenium stage). But we never are. It's like watching a pop-rock musical take place in a Faberge panorama egg. It glitters and shines within an inch of its multimillion-dollar life, but it always stays tantalizingly out of reach.

All the more ironic then when Old Deuteronomy, a sort of sagacious Moses-like feline, booms at the end, ''Cats are very much like you.'' I suspect that all the themes of birth, death, redemption, transcendence, and memory that have flickered through the cats' life stories are meant to come walloping home to the audience as well. But with the exception of Laurie Beechman's excellent portrayal of Grizabella, including the featured song ''Memory,'' such will not be the case, although particular characters, such as Anthony Whigas's Skimbleshanks, Sal Mistretta's Growltiger, and Jennifer Butt's Griddlebone, are captivating.

Yet somehow, despite these problems and despite its $20 to $40 ticket price, ''Cats'' remains a must-see. That is unless you have already steeped yourself in this pageant in London or New York in which case its effects will be diminished by repeat viewing. (The $40 ticket, by the way, is the most expensive in Boston theater history.)

In its own way, it has become the current Barnum & Bailey of theater. According to choreographer Lynne, the play was conceived as ''England's first musical danced nonstop start to finish.'' It is also good old-fashioned showmanship.

It was presumably inevitable that such high-powered whimsy would clone itself for the benefit of those off the beaten cultural track. After a five-month run in Boston, ''Cats'' is expected to move to Washington for another extended run. Further locations have not yet been named.

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