On and around the stage since age 7, Phil has been on nearly every side of it, both professional and amateur. He has been involved in over 100 productions, from major corporate and government events to playing an on-stage prop in a walk-on role.
Cats is undoubtedly a spectacle. Beyond some of the major one-time events, it would be difficult to find anything in Dubai with this height of production value and with that “Broadway magic.” But I couldn’t help feeling like a little something was missing.
I’m only going to look at this performance. Cats as a whole production has been reviewed many times over. Critical opinions are a bit split, though it did win a Tony and a Laurence Olivier award. And, people either love or hate Cats. There is a lot to love. And there is a lot to question.
But this specific touring performance of Cats, how does it stack up? Well, it’s a phenomenal production and I’m honestly happy to be sinking my critical teeth into something of this level. It does have its flaws though. This is not a gushing and glowing review, but make no mistake, this had many elements on the level of Broadway and West End… but not all.
A Shaky Start
I was at the Tuesday, January 17th show, and I couldn’t help but feel that the shakiness of the first few sets was the result of either: a) some libatious opening night celebrations by the cast, or b) too few rehearsals in the space. The energy was a bit down, and vocals were slightly out of sync between the actors, as well as a few insynchronicities in dance steps. Not enough to be particularly noticeable, but enough to make the first fifteen minutes feel less crisp than they could be.
Yet, with stunning sets, costumes and lighting effects in place, and with remarkable character performances, it was forgivable and did not detract much from the performance, as noted by the enthusiasm of the audience. That first enthusiastic feedback did seem to have a knock-on effect, resulting in stronger, more synchronized performances as the night went on.
The stagecraft was beautifully conceived and realized. The technical touches with lights and tightness of cues had me grinning ear-to-ear. However, the audio levels did have oddities: vocal levels often seemed lower than instrumentals. Sadly, this was the case on two of the most prominent pieces: Memories and Mr. Mistoffolees, causing me to miss out a bit on the best piece of the night. Personally, I am ready to admit that this could be due to my proximity to the house left speakers. Maybe the audience in the center had a better mix? If so, then this is a venue issue and not a production issue, but not acceptable.
Strong Characters & Convincing Performances, Weak Routines
On the note of Memories, Joanna Ampil (Grizabella) salvaged the first act. It wasn’t a bad first act by most measures, but for a musical without a plot and with a slightly shaky start, her rendition of Memories provided the first moment of the evening in which I felt an emotional connection to anyone or anything on stage, rather than just detached awe or amazement. In a tragically gripping finale to the the first act, her reappearance in the next act was anxiously awaited.
This is a cast of leads, and everyone really did step up to the plate in leading fashion… with their characters. Even if you don’t know their names, you can recognize the character by the way they move, act, hiss and slink around stage. Cats with personality. But Cats with voice or dance skills? It wasn’t up to par with Broadway.
The dances were shaky, quite literally at times seeing performers shake while in grips and holds. Some footwork seemed sloppy and unsure. Many dancers in the audience would have had their comments, for sure. But the choreographer kept the show alive with energy and rhythm.
Vocals were strong, but not powerful. They were never out of key, out of tune or weak… but there was no feeling, no depth, nor any life in most cases. This was quite disappointing.
Phil’s first reaction walking out of the Dubai Opera on Tuesday night. So distracted he forgot he was chewing gum. Not a review… just first reaction.
Final Verdict on Cats
Go. Definitely go… with caveats.
- If you have seen Cats before, the second time doesn’t have the same magic. And this is not as good as the Broadway or West End production, I am certain. So beware. But if you saw it in childhood, the nostalgia may be worth it.
- If you cannot let go, and cannot enjoy watching a couple-dozen grown adults act like cats on stage for more than two hours… don’t go. You will regret it and hate it.
- If you’re looking for an emotionally charged piece, this isn’t it.
- If you have limited money to spend, save it. There are some fantastic productions coming up that you could get to. And despite the marketing campaign, you might actually get another chance in your life to see this one… but, only maybe. Just figure your priorities out.
- If you don’t like musicals, don’t go. I mean, this should be obvious, but really, Cats is like the musical. There is basically no dialogue. It’s just singing and dancing.
If none of those describe you, then you really need to get there and experience it, because you don’t often get a chance to feel that spectacle here. It’s not the newest of contemporary theatre, but it is a modern musical.
We hope that helps.
[Edit Jan 20 10:45am: Abdullah has gone to Cats and was extremely disappointed. Once Emma goes, I think we’ll be having a “debrief” and break down of what happened. But many of Phil’s negative comments above were reaffirmed.]
[Edit Jan 23 2:21pm: Emma saw it this weekend and was disappointed with the audio issues as well. She did not see the same issues with out-of-sync dancing – maybe it’s been cleaned up a bit? Further discussions we have had with other experts and fans has been consistently mediocre and “meh.”]