Monday, September 6, 2010

Who likes cats?

Filmed at the Adelphi Theater in London. Directed by David Mallet. Starring Elaine Paige, John Mills and Ken Page. Polygram Video. 115 minutes. $24.95. 
Is it a vaudeville show? An oratorio? A singing and dancing storybook? A live-action cartoon? An environmental theater piece? A pretentious pop allegory (with Christian symbolism) that compares the feline condition to the human one?
At various times, ''Cats,'' the indestructible Andrew Lloyd Webber megahit, is all of the above. With its silly cat costumes that make the actors look like singing and dancing carnival trophies, striped makeup that suggests a 1976 Kiss concert, and lumbering burlesque-show choreography, ''Cats'' is also the epitome of a garish kitsch pageant.
Restaged for home video by David Mallet, does ''Cats,'' which will be shown tomorrow night at 8 o'clock on PBS, work on the small screen? Yes and no. Theater, especially when it involves elaborate musical staging, is awfully hard to bring to life in another medium unless the work is totally reconceived. And ''Cats'' has not been. It is a more athletically directed and staged elaboration of the show that opened on Broadway 16 years ago (minus the Siamese cat pirate sequence).
Scenic effects that you accept in a theater -- especially Grizabella's ascent to heaven -- look mechanically contrived and ungainly on video. In long shots of the production numbers, the dancers blur into unkinetic blobs of motion bathed in bright blue light. The spontaneity of live performance is compromised by the obvious overdubbing of most if not all of the singing.
Where the home video has the advantage is in creating intimate portraits of the felines who prowl around the junkyard set and in magnifying the acrobatics. Grizabella, the faded Glamour Cat played by Elaine Paige, has more pathos here than on the stage because the camera can gaze close up into her sad, ruined face. You want to crawl onto the lap of wise, bearish Old Deuteronomy (Ken Page). With his shaking paws and frightened eyes, Gus the Theater Cat (John Mills) is a plaintive ruin of a once-elegant figure.
But the sentimentality of ''Cats'' can become strained. There are moments when the actors staring soulfully out of those cartoonish cat faces suggest the pleading gazes of the lost children in Edward Keane paintings.
Musically, ''Cats'' is a one-hit show. Although that hit, ''Memory,'' has been maligned as ersatz Puccini, it still beats every other Lloyd Webber ballad in sheer melodic clout. To her credit, Ms. Paige, who originated the role in London, stays within her character and doesn't use the song to flaunt her technique.
As for the rest of the songs, based mostly on the 14 poems from T. S. Eliot's ''Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats,'' the music is overwhelmingly clangy, but at least you can discern the words of Eliot's verses. If the gentle whimsy of Eliot's poetry has been trampled, the characters in the feline portrait gallery come through.
They are pop stars on parade.