Super-slick, but still not purr-fect

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 January, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 January, 1994, 12:00am

Cats, APA Lyric Theatre, January 18.

PERMIT me to make my position clear. I am crazy about cats - incurably moggie-mad; and so, along with others besotted by felines and musical theatre, I've been yowling with impatience for Andrew Lloyd Webber's tribute to those furry delights and T S Eliot.

Have no doubts: this is the slickest, most spectacular musical yet seen in Hong Kong, a show truly in the tradition of the West End and Broadway. But if you're talking about the real thing - well, that depends on whether you've seen Cats before and where.

The original, purpose-built London production was done in the round, with a revolving stage and flexible seating. Clearly, a replication of this ''giant playground for cats'' was impossible for the Asian tour, but a cleverly transformed Lyric preserves much of the intimacy.

Surviving intact is the magic of John Napier's design. The garbage-dump setting, the costumes and make-up, those amazing special effects - this is seeing-is-believing stuff.

However, hearing poses certain problems, especially in Act One. Crucial to Cats is an impeccable rendering of Eliot's verses and opening night had the audience straining for elucidation, especially during the all-important prologue. Acoustics may have been to blame. More likely it was the polyphonic treatment, delivered with a deliberate softness which defeated even the sharpest ears.

Also blurring the edges is this production's lighting - often too dark to spot the cats in their various lairs - and the powerful emphasis on ensemble work. While a full stage looks impressive, it tends to rob the key characters of their individuality and lessens the impact of the different dance styles they are meant to personify.

A few rise above it effortlessly. Clawing his way to the top in this predominantly Australian cast is New York's Eric Clausell as the Rum Tum Tugger. Yee-oow! This rampant cat is dynamite.

Sizzling performances also come from Carrie Barr (Jellylorum) and Grant Smith (Asparagus), Jerry McPherson (Mr Mistoffelees) and John Bowles (Munkustrap), while abundant humour is provided by delicious characters such as Jennyanydots and Bombalurina.

For all the sinuous, high-octanegoings-on, it is Eliot's gentlest cats who make this show so special.

Effortlessly winning hearts and minds is wise Old Deuteronomy played beautifully by John Bolton-Wood. Touching most deeply is that tragic reject, Grizabella, reduced to a shadow of her once-glamorous self.

Illness forced Singapore's Jacintha Abisheganaden to relinqish the most coveted role in Cats for its Hong Kong premiere. In her place was Australia's Silvie Paladino, producing the most exquisite pathos. When she unleashed that spine-tingling voice in Memory, there was no doubt. It was her song.