As one of its lyrics says about its title species, "Cats" is ineffable. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, making its fifth road prowl through Baltimore, continues to draw audiences and fulfill expectations for reasons not easily described.
More ballet than conventional stage musical, more a collection of set-pieces than a plotted story -- with a touch of the circus -- the production works at some elemental level deeper than any of its parts.
T. S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," from which the play draws most of its lyrics, is certainly clever. But in truth, the poetry is more catchy than provocative, for it was written to entertain the poet's godchildren.
The junkyard set, with its hanging moon in the background, draws an audience into the fantasy. But the stage is hardly as dramatic as, say, the fabulous web of "Kiss of the Spider Woman" or even the ominous descending stairway of "Man of La Mancha," the last Broadway standard to play the Lyric this year.
The choreography is creative, but with the exception of Mr. Mistoffolees' second-act theatrics (done acrobatically in this production by Joseph Favalora), the dance does not come up to the standards of "A Chorus Line."
Lloyd Webber's emotional melodies could, and do, stand up as concert pieces -- and not just the signature "Memory." From "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats" to the closing "Ad-Dressing of Cats," the music is wonderfully hum-able -- including even the humorous mock-opera duet from "Growltiger's Last Stand" (with a properly irascible William R. Park and Jean Arbeiter).
But without those costumes, the remarkable makeup and the feline mannerisms that members of the company adopt, often making eye contact with audience members, "Cats" would be just another stray. Instead, it is the longest continuously touring musical and the longest-running Broadway production in history. (It opened Oct. 7, 1982.)
The current road cast performs ably across the board, judging from last Saturday night's performance.
Jeri Sager as Grizabella the Glamour Cat was appropriately melancholy, and her showcase renditions of "Memory" were nicely modulated, with a pure voice that never seemed in danger overselling the song.
J. Robert Spencer brought bounding energy and a strong voice to Rum Tum Tugger (the rock 'n' roll cat); Randy Clements was a steady tenor presence as Munkustrap; and Doug Eskew was regal and paternal as Old Deuteronomy.
By the way, has anybody else seen a parallel between Grizabella and Norma Desmond, the faded star of Lloyd Webber's newest hit, "Sunset Boulevard"? Perhaps it's just the coincidence that Betty Buckley, the original Grizabella, is taking over from Glenn Close this week as Norma.
When: 7:30 p.m. today through Sunday; 2 p.m. tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday
Where: Lyric Opera House
Call: (410) 481-7328