Singing, Dancing Cats at the Kennedy Center

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Keri René Fuller as Grizabella. Photo by Matthew Murphy. Courtesy Kennedy Center.

Here’s some news you may not have noticed, even in the 24-hour news cycle that is our time. The cats are back in town.

We are talking about, of course, the North American tour of what is one of the most successful musicals ever. It is also arguably (and appropriately) one of the most curious musicals ever put on a stage in London, New York or any of the pit stops around the world where it has been staged.

The current D.C. residency of “Cats,” in the Kennedy Center Opera House, runs through Oct. 6.

It’s an Andrew Lloyd Webber grand spectacle and creation, juiced to entertain like a nonstop carnival, but based on the odd little poem book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by highbrow American-born English poet T. S. Eliot, who had other things to say about the world in the darker shade of “The Waste Land.”

The show, full of swarming performers in feline form and costume, first appeared in its own moonlight on Broadway in 1982. It settled in like, well, a house cat at the Winter Garden Theatre and ran for nearly 8,000 performances, with various companies taking off for points north, south, east and west all over the world.

In full flesh and fur, the kittens all returned in 2016 to Broadway. Now on tour, they’re back, all of them, and that includes the likes of Skimbleshanks, Gus the Theater Cat, Rum Tum Tugger, Bombalurina, Coricopat, Jellylorum, the literally electric Mephistopheles, Mungo Jerry and Rumpelteazer, the sleek Cassandra and the mysteriously appealing  white cat Victoria  (a high flying Caitlin Bond). Even more are onstage and sometimes in the aisles at the Kennedy Center.

“Cats” is a show that stands off by itself in terms of genre. As a piece of work and a piece of music, it plays like the roll call of a long-ago vaudeville act at times. It’s a musical whose music defies both category and gravity, whose core is a one-word theme and an almost continual spectacle and gift bag of dancing, cats being what they are.

It’s a show so popular and so familiar that it readily attracts derision and disdain for its familiar tropes, characters, anthropomorphisms (making animals remind humans of their own humanity), circus-like aspects and doses of sentimentality. It’s so potent that dog lovers can’t resist it, even though, as the cats themselves tell you: A cat is not a dog.

But these cats, and this revival, holds up and keeps on moving, even more energetically than the original, with a strong emphasis on dance and dancing — which fits the cats just so, since they tend to move around a lot, even when standing still. There’s very little plot, a slight but emotionally moving story about redemption, a gathering of cats of all sorts, the Jellicle Ball, and the journey of one cat to the Heaviside Layer.

One’s reaction to “Cats” can be found pretty much in the show’s big and most memorable song, which is “Memory.” How you feel about “Cats” depends to some degree on if you’re a fan or uninitiated, young or old, or have only a vague memory of hearing a snatch of song, a flash of movement.

Critics are in the same pickle there. If you saw “Cats” in the 1980s, when they first crawled out of the corners of a set that looks like an inviting, moonlit junkyard, you’re apt to remember it fondly, like your first stuffed animal, or your first favorite song. “Memory” asks you to remember yourself. Back then I fancied myself the rock-and-rolling Rum Tum Tugger; now I feel like Old Deuteronomy. It depends.

For Keri René Fuller, “Memory” is very special, a major responsibility, because she embodies, sings and plays Grizabella, a slow-moving, once glamorous cat, a belle of the ball some time ago, who’s been shunned by the tribe.

For Fuller, who is 26, it’s not about age, but about how you’ve lived your life; it’s about redemption. “Time and what she’s done with it and how she’s lived, has taken a toll,” she said. “These Jellicle cats are tribal and now they’ve rejected her.

“I don’t get to dance in this, no,” she says, “although I think the dancing is very strong. But I admire the character. She has courage in spite of everything.”

Fuller acts the part in a way a cat might act it. It’s all about the hesitant movements, shy, movement overcoming fear. And she certainly can sing the part.

She appears about three times. By the third time, when she becomes fully self-assured, she built the song from a hesitant, almost hidden volume to a blast of fresh and full-throated and full-lunged triumph. She brings the house down — and probably the one next door, too.

For Fuller, who comes from Oklahoma and studied at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio, being in “Cats” represents some remarkable changes in her life. She lives in New York, but “this is my first national tour, or tour of any kind,” she said. “That’s an awesome experience — traveling all over the country, you really get a chance to see America, from the Midwest to Florida to New England, as well as Canada. I like to think that I put something fresh into the role and the music each night. It’s a challenge.”

Not to mention that lots of top-drawer stars have sung “Memory,” and that there’s a movie version with Jennifer Hudson doing the honors coming in December.

She’s not the first Grizabella to get into the Heaviside Layer, a stage creation that’s high up. “Honestly, I was terrified,” she said. “But you get used to it.”

“The tour is an interesting life,” she said. “You get so revved up during the performance, the whole show, all of us, and then you’re a little exhausted, so you try to get as much rest as you can.”

These cats, as a whole, feel fresh, not so much reimagined or reinvented as re-invigorated. The trappings and the Jellicles are still there, Gus the Theater Cat remembering his proudest role, the railroad cat creating a train right before your eyes, the burglar cats and the newish whiz-bang light shows, cats prowling the aisle and all that cat jazz. It’s a little defiant, in fact, jostling for room and attention in the year 2019.

So is Fuller. She does it by making Grizabella her own.

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