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For most Filipinos, a "cat" is a slim, furred, lazy, comfort-seeking little tiger that roam around old streets, restaurants and households mostly scavenging on leftovers and hidden food on the kitchen counter.

For T.S. Elliot, a "cat" is a Jellicle. A feline, colorful, sexy, and funny; an anectodal character that surpasses life, and each has its own story to tell.

For Andrew Lloyd Webber, it is a member of a Tribe of the same name. Hypocritical, pragmatical, fanatical, political and allegorical. For him, the Jellicle begins life with a desire to achieve the joy of living and ends with a hope to reach the Heavy Side Layer.

When Webber merged his ideas to that of Elliot's, the marriage eventually gave birth to one of Broadway's longest running musical – CATS.

It took almost 30 years before these felines reached the shores of Manila to perform in front of the Filipino audience. A much-awaited event for us who have had the experience and not missed the meaning.

Like any other hospitable Pinoy, the Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo adjusted its seats to accommodate the Jellicle Junkyard where the Jellicle Ball will be held. Structurally littered with trash, you'll even see a Surf laundry detergent box on upper center. The soft midnight lights during the pre-set created the atmosphere of solitude and silence, probably in preparation for Grizabella and her eventual contribution to that fateful night when she'd return to the tribe.

***

The lights go out and the Overture begins;  except for those little pairs of eyes that blink everywhere in the Junkyard. Little bright cat eyes checking the audience and watching in inept surveillance, gracefully setting a mysterious ambiance of feline paranoia and mongering. In the dark you see a circular light from the heavens moving toward the Junkyard, but eventually reverts towards the end of the Overture.

A flash from a moving vehicle's headlights cuts across the darkness, revealing Demeter at stage left. She quickly retraces her steps and hides in a pipe at center-right.

Munkustrapp enters, straightens himself and spreads his paws. He courageously looks at the you and begins to ask the first Jellicle Question: Are you blind when you're born?

That is only when you'd realize you're not dreaming. Cats – Now and Forever is finally here in Manila!

***

Lunchbox Productions, in cooperation with The Really Useful Group brings the most loved musical there ever was – Cats. The touring company has a cast of mostly Australian actors, dancers and singers except for our very own Lea Salonga who plays Grizabella.

Despite the costly tickets, Filipinos managed to find enough budget to have the experience. 'Be and I had had our tickets as early as December last year and costed us Php 5,562.00 (roughly $124.00). Now, these tickets cost Php 6,180.00 ($137.00), an obvious increase of approximately Php 500.00 ($11.00).

But who cares. We didn't do the Math during the wait from December to August. Besides, a desperate western-musical-loving-Filipino who could save from air travel and accommodation expenses will grab this opportunity to see this show just beside the shores of Manila Bay.What we only did was wait. And we did just that. I was so excited, I even posted a day counter here in my blog to count the remaining days, hours, minutes and seconds before the scheduled Jellicle Ball. 

For a former Jellicle like me, I wouldn't care less even if the orchestra tickets cost Php 10,000. I was Munkustrapp during my time, and seeing others doing it in front of a live audience is something that I'd thank God for. 'Be and I waited with eager, expectant hearts journey back to the Jellicle Junkyard, and remember the night when Gizabella returns. 

***

Storywise, there isn't much about the musical. As one of the fanatics that cling to the experience and the glory that is Cats, we all know that the simple storyline is but a facade to other aspects that make the musical great.

Why? Simple: on the night of the yearly Jellicle Ball, the Jellicle Cats convene in the Jellicle Junkyard awaiting the Jellicle Leader (Old Deuteronomy). On this night, under the Jellicle Moon, Deuteronomy will choose the one cat to be sent to the Heavy Side Layer to experience a new Jellicle Life. All the cats celebrate and/or volunteer one another (Jennyanydots, Rum Tum Tugger, Bustopher Jones , Skimbleshanks etc.) including Gus: the Theater Cat, a retired Jellicle actor who has accomplished great achievements in the arts. On that same night, however, Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, returns to the tribe, volunteering herself for the chance to be chosen. Apparently, Grizabella was once the most loved Jellicle before she left the tribe years ago, promising herself that she'll find a different form of happiness outside the confines of the group. Now, she's old, torn, dilapidated, crippled and hated. The only reminder of her once glamorous life is her sequined short-cut gown under a tattered gray cat-fur coat. Her only defense is the fact that she alone has experienced true happiness. For it is only through neglect and utmost sadness can one define what happiness is.

This touring company executed an almost same production that most of the fans are familiar with. CATS is known as

 a structured musical, expected to exceed or at least keep at par with the original concept and energy that was launched almost 30 years ago. 

Adrian Ricks, the dance captain for the touring team, faithfully adhered to Gillian Lynne's concept of dance. We still see Lynne's original choreography. Those feline moves and sophisticated combinations still enthrall the audience. Each formation and block during dance sequences coordinates with the levels of the Junkyard, ever reminding the audience that fantasy can be as realistic yet deceiving (considering that we have cats as characters). 

Much can be said on Webber's music. The all-too-familiar showtunes that made our hearts melt through the years have been given enough justice that night. The touring team's live orchestra gave a rendition of those classic tunes that's worthy of an ovation. The voices, however, were a bit too soft at some point, limiting some areas to hear the blends and variations. I also experienced this in Miss Saigon when it was staged at Nicanor. I don't know, but probably, it's just me. 

Rum Tum Tugger (John O' Hara), is the most narcissistic , yet lovable character of all. Though I am already quite familiar with his music and dance, I still saw his improvised nuances for this most curious of cats. His growls, purrs and moves all curl up to one really hot cat. His self-confidence exceeds the levels of other Rum Tum Tuggers that I saw and worked with, that O' Hara pushed the limits to the point of self-adoration and narcissism. His charisma stunned the Filipino audience whenever he attempts to draw the crowd towards him, even at a desperate measure of taking a female spectator to dance with him, just so he could get an applause. That's one Rum Tum Tugger that I like!!!

Bombalurina (Monique Chanel Pitsikas), gave us what we expect Bomba to be. Her keen moves and graceful re-creation of the sexiest Queen in the Jellicle Junkyard reminded me of how beautiful and graceful Gem is. Her colorful skin (costume) glowed even in the dark and her voluptuous, yet subtle breasts conforms to her name. Like O' Hara, Pitsikas has her own creative approach to her character, thus presented a relatively new Bombalurina to a familiar audience. 

Munkustrapp (Shaun Rennie), is the character closest to my heart. I once played this role 8 years ago, and still living the character until now. I had high expectations before the show and Rennie lived up to it. I must say that his Munkustrapp is as keen and caring as one should be. The Big Brother motif he portrayed throughout the Jellicle Night has shown his love for his fellow Jellicles, hate for Macavity and respect for Old Deuteronomy. And did I forget to mention that he has a great body? He has also gracefully executed each combination required of his role. Shaun's final stop is Manila. He'll be returning to Australia after the Manila run while the rest of the cast moves to their next stop. Indeed, he has been pouring all his energies  in the remaining shows that he has for the Filipino audience. 

Another delight that should be given enough credit for is  Michael-John Hurney,( Bustopher Jones, Gus, and Growltiger). Though his greatest "creation as the Manila version history would tell" was his Growltiger performance. His "manly baritone" took the audience by surprise during his final duet with coloratura  Griddlebone (Lisa-Marie Parker). His scheming, love-sick manner reminded me of the days of youth and innocence, even though his character may have already been a bit too old. 

And who would not love Mr. Mistoffelees (Adrian Ricks)? That graceful magical cat who rescued Old Deuteronomy from Macavity's paws of levitation? Personally, his 24 fouttes en tournant  (yes, I counted them)  were just as amazing!

But as the title suggests, the "reviewing" CATS is really a difficult matter. It isn't just one of your holiday games. You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter, when I tell you that CATS (in Manila) has THREE DIFFERENT SHAMES!

First of all there's the shame in the energy, or its focus for that matter. I'm not sure with the other performance or maybe because we watched an evening show where there was a matinée which ended a couple of hours before. I felt that there was a lack of focus and theatrical tension among some of the players. Demeter (Stephanie Morrison) still needs to portray a more paranoid cat especially during the Macavity number. I found her a bit too soft even during the initial opening scene when the headlights flashed through the set. Further, Macavity has a very linear and tensed choreography. But the Queens (Morrison and Pitsikas) did otherwise. Cassandra (Emma Clark) lacked the mystery of the brown/cream Abyssinian Queen that I know. It is painful for me say though that her height is not what is expected of her character, as Cassandra is expected to be a tall and slender like an Egyptian cat. As for Parker, though she gave a very fine performance as Griddlebone in Growltiger's Last Stand, still needs to focus her energy more at one point during her rendition of Gus: The Theater Cat as Jellylorum. Her many movements during the song distracted the audience and shifted to her instead of Gus who's the actual thesis of the song/poem. 

There are fancier shames, if you think they sound sweeter. Some for the Tom Cats (male casts) and some for the Queens (female casts). When you notice a cat in profound meditation, you'll see that there are still areas for improvement in the cosmetics department. I have personally studied the patterns necessary to transform a human face to a Jellicle face during my time and I must say that our own make-up artists (Nadia and Ianne) did a better job. Though it is arguable that detail is not an issue in big theater houses such as the Nicanor, however, it can still disturb someone who has been to the Heavy Side Layer and back. Most of the eye make-up were patterned so big some of them looked more like Chinese opera actors than  Jellicles. Even Leah Salonga's Grizabella lacked the needed small lines to communicate to the nearer spectators her age and tragedy. I would assume at this point that such general patterns in color, with minor consideration to details, can cater better to those seated at the farther seats (like row P to W). However, we, who were seated in the first few rows found it a bit too odd to notice such big chunks of colors without much detail to enthrall us. 

But far and beyond, there's still one shame left over, and that is the shame that you (probably) never will

 guess. A shame that no "Filipino" audience may discover (or admit), but a former Cat knows and will now confess. If there is something that the entire production fails to see or admit, I am firm in saying that it is their own Grizabella. I promised my friends that they will never listen to Memory the same way again after they hear Grizabella's rendition. But then again, I take it back. Lea Salonga's version of this essential role failed to meet the expectations of more critical viewers and fans of the musical. Her too-perfect-pitch and sound denied the role of its character. All she did was she gave what the Filipino audience expects – the Lea Salonga voice and not her character's story. Let's face it, dear readers, those who are familiar with Gizabella will say that this dilapidated old Queen is already at what Erik Erikson calls the stage of Integrity vs. Despair. At this point in one's life, how can such character sing a pitch-perfect rendition of Memory? Had Leah sung it in a videoke bar, or in a concert for that matter, the way she has done it last Sunday, I would have given her my loudest cheer. But considering that she was in character, and a torn cat at that, she should have had given a more appropriate attack to this timeless classic. The directors and critics for this touring team should look back at how former Grizabellas defined this character through the years. Should I specifically point out Elaine Paige's performance that makes you cringe every time you see her stand and belt the highest note in the song? Or can I recommend  Betty Buckley's version that even made Webber somewhat teary-eyed? Some would say: to each its own. However, shouldn't Lea also give a version that is somehow at par with her contemporaries? After all, she's a Tony and a Lawrence Olivier winner, isn't she?

I think the problem is with the actress (Salonga). Before I further justify my case, let me just state that I don't have anything against her. She has been one of my most revered theater actresses since her days in Miss Saigon and Les Miz. Her successes has inspired me explore the arts that I even took Theater Arts in college to discover my talent as an actor for the stage. But Lea can only do so much. There are roles that will fit her voice, talent and age (Kim, Eponine, Jasmine, Mulan and Mei-Li), and there are roles that are still too young for her, one of which is Grizabella. She's no Federica Valzano who can play with her voice and create another variation of the song. Her expressions were not as raw as I'd expected an old, dilapidated cat should be. Even her make-up did not do any justice. She looked like a Gotham City villain to me more than anything else. Her movements were boxed, limited, and too predictable. She should have explored the character more. Having seen Lea do this paramount role in CATS is for me the greatest tragedy in the production. I would rather have Celia Rodriguez play the part, and I'm sure that she'd do better!

So there. I said it na!

***

But 'be and I did not watch CATS just for the energy, make-up, or Lea. We watched it for the experience, and the opportunity to travel back to that happy night of the Jellicles; where one finds the meaning of true happiness. We took a big cut from our savings to relive the memory of our pasts and rejoice in the delight of seeing other Jellicles dance the night through. 

Was it still worth it? Oh yes! 

Indeed when one sees the bigger picture and the brighter side, one can claim true happiness and not miss the meaning!

VIVAT! LIFE TO THE EVERLASTING CAT

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Orly S. Agawin

The author Orly S. Agawin

Orly has been writing for The Jellicle Blog since 2008. He is a training and development consultant by day and an art enthusiast by night. He lives in Parañaque with his mom.

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