- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

Twenty-six cats prowling around anywhere is a daunting prospect, yet at Toby’s, the cast portrays more than two dozen felines so fetchingly that you think maybe a few more couldn’t hurt.

“Cats,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical warhorse that has sent Broadway audiences scurrying for the Frontline since it premiered there in 1982, has become available for regional productions, and Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Md., is one of the first theaters to attempt to re-create its kittenish allure.

The intimacy of the space at Toby’s proves to be a plus for directors Toby Orenstein and Ilona Kessel (who also came up with the show’s lithe, balletic choreography). It makes the show less of an empty spectacle and aligns it more closely with its source material, T.S. Eliot’s book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” a dotty and keenly observed musing on mouser behavior.

You do miss a complete orchestra, however, as the keyboard-heavy 10-piece orchestra strives not to sound rinky-dink. Matters are greatly aided by an emphasis on full-out choral singing, which brings a roundness to the proceedings.

The whisker-thin plot of “Cats” is basically an all-sung tribute to feline antics, as a bunch of kitties converge on a junkyard for their annual Jellicle Ball. At the end of the night, the group’s shamanistic elder, Old Deuteronomy (Michael Kenny), will choose the lucky puss who will ascend to Cat Heaven.

Even those allergic to cats or Mr. Webber’s musicals will welcome the up-close-and-personal vantage point to the poised acrobatics from the catlike cast, who are clad in Jane Shafer’s striking variations on John Napier’s original costumes. Fans of Broadway’s “Cats” will be pleased to know that the flavor of the costumes, with their shiny unitards strewn with fur and calico markings, has been retained, as have the spiky fur wigs and the minxish makeup.

The costumes and makeup captivate, but the actors expend nine lives’ worth of energy portraying the various cats. The entire troupe deserves credit for its triple threat of singing, dancing and reverse-anthropomorphizing, but there are standouts.

Jenn Segawa makes a dainty, astoundingly limber White Cat, while her polar opposite in temperament, Rumpelteaser, is played with roguish attitude by Felicia Curry.

Pat O’Neill, whom we last saw hanging upside down as the star of Studio Theatre’s musical “Bat Boy,” trades in his wings and fangs for a spangled costume and pyrotechnic flair as the conjuring cat, Mr. Mistoffelees. L.C. Harden displays a rock star’s leonine swagger and swivel hips as Rum Tum Tugger; and Laurie Saylor, who was so sublime in Signature’s “Allegro,” shows a similar unaffected charisma as the affable, tap-dancing Jennyanydots.

What would a production of “Cats” be without Grizabella, the Joan Rivers of catdom, a tattered hag who doesn’t know when to hang it up? In her ratty fur coat and ripped stockings, Janine Gulisano cuts a forlorn figure, but she retains a lovely glimmer of her past glamour. When she sings “Memory,” the musical’s centerpiece, all the years slip away in the honeyed, hushed tones of her voice.

“Cats” may have vacated Broadway, but much of its dandered appeal lives on in Toby’s pedigreed production.

***

WHAT: “Cats” by Andrew Lloyd Webber

WHERE: Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, Md.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays (doors open at 6 p.m. for dinner), 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (doors open at 10:30 a.m. for brunch), 7 p.m. Sundays (doors open at 5 p.m. for dinner). Through Aug. 8.

TICKETS: $28 to $40

PHONE: 301/596-6161

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