Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical "Cats" opened at Broadway's Winter Garden Theater in 1982, a year after its London opening, and ran for 7,485 performances.

The musical, based on T. S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," ran even longer in London, making "Cats" the longest-running show in both cities — topped only on Broadway by Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera," a more conventional musical.

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So what explains the popularity of this nontraditional musical, drawn from Eliot's verses and arranged in scenes featuring feline characters? Despite its iconic status, "Cats" does not instantly captivate all. In about 1990 at Baltimore's Lyric, I wondered how this one-tune show had attained theatrical immortality. Fifteen years later in Toby's Dinner Theatre's intimate setting, I first experienced this show's unique appeal.

Now, in the current Compass Rose production, I appreciate more fully the groundbreaking originality of show that seems avant-garde compared to many contemporary — yet already dated — jukebox musicals.

In her program message, Compass Rose founder and artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne, who serves as this production's director, tells us she has chosen two works by Eliot, the 20th-century English poet, for this season: "Cats," followed by "Murder in the Cathedral," to run Jan. 30-March 8.

Staging this dance-heavy work might seem a stretch for drama-savvy Merry-Browne, but she easily moves to this format, using her theater's soaring space to maximum effect as feline characters descend from all angles.

Merry-Browne transforms the theater stage into a mystical environment where cats create a feline kingdom. The intimacy of the stage to the audience draws us into this mystical world where gleaming cats' eyes engage us in instant kinship.

Contributing to this magic is lighting designer Joey Guthman, who adds vigor to the show's movement. Also contributing is costume designer Renee Vergauwen in her first professional production — displaying a distinctive flair for transforming dancers into credible cats.

Another person debuting in this production is choreographer Emily Frank, who has guided a number of school productions and creates her own magic here.

Compass Rose music director Anita O'Connor displays her versatility in revealing the assortment of anthems in their distinctive rhythms. O'Connor undoubtedly coached singers to emphasize every witticism.

Making the magic come alive in each performance is superb accompanist Jimothy Rodgers, who identifies himself as "a keyboard instrument specialist." That title hardly begins to describe his artistry in demonstrating that this score is far more than one single super song, but a collection of varying rhythms.

For the players, Merry-Browne has assembled what she calls "nine exceptional performers who are talented at dance, song and acting to create on our stage characters who are funny and winsome."

Indeed, "Cats" is a true ensemble piece, and these actor-dancers are perfect together, expertly executing Frank's demanding combined jazz and ballet choreography. The ensemble brings out one another's facets, often communicated solely through dance. These versatile dancers become a first-rate chorus in several instances to solidify their ensemble credentials.

Standout moments include actor Alison Rose Munn as Grizabella delivering an exquisite version of signature song "Memory," and her poignant scene reminiscing about her happier "Glamour Cat" days.

A most beguiling blonde cat, Megan Schwartz, is incredibly lithe, executing graceful splits and other feats of athleticism with pizazz.

Already possessing a number of impressive off-Broadway and California credits, Anne Schroeder is a standout as Jennyanydots, society fat cat Bustopher Jones and others. Also possessing an impressive resume, Terrence Bennett is outstanding as Rum Tum Tugger and Skimbleshanks, the railway cat.

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On opening night, Michael Begley delivered the role of Old Deuteronomy with a masterful touch, though his performance might have benefited by an added touch of gentle, more kindly demeanor.

The Compass Rose production of "Cats" runs Thursdays-Sundays through Dec. 21 at 49 Spa Road, Annapolis. Tickets can be ordered online at compassrosetheater.org or by calling 410-320-6662.

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