I struggle with where to begin in praising director Matthew Teague Miller's Cats at the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre, simply because there's so much to praise.
Were I forced to pick a favorite element of the production, it might be Amy Hamel's choreography, which plays a large part in making the presentation so stellar. While she borrows from the original Broadway choreography, especially the feline-esque moves such as pawing forward at the air with one arm while bending the other arm and one knee, her heavily ballet- and jazz-influenced designs are no copycat dance routines. They feel fresh, and better yet, singular to the Showboat's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical about cats gathering to decide which one will be reincarnated.
Hamel's steps require a lot of energy from the cast as they're mostly peppy and almost non-stop through the course of the musical. That said, Hamel's creative work wouldn't be the finest aspect of the piece without the ideal cast to execute it so beautifully. While there are several standouts who deliver flawless performances, Hamel's excellence is clearest during Mr. Mistoffelees' solo, and Drew Porrett wowed Thursday's crowd, who applauded his graceful athleticism and acrobatics so loud and long that the sound stopped the play for what felt like several minutes. Lighting designer James Kyle Davis accentuated the magic of this mystical cat with laser pointers on his fingers that Porrett flicks on and off at various points, shining thin, green beams of light out over the audience and, for comedic effect, in front of the chorus of cats, who paw at the lights as real felines would be wont to do.
Teague's production also wouldn't be as unique as it is without designer Emma Ford's costumes. Thankfully, she forsakes the expected bodysuits in favor of human clothing to match each cat's personality. The facial makeup and wigs with hair shaped into ears are there, but Gus (Peter Sickels) wears pajamas, a robe, and slippers; Munkustrap (Jonathan Young) is in Adidas pants, a blue, long-sleeve henley, and a thick chain around his neck; and Rum Tum Tugger (Christian Chambers) wears ripped jeans, a white T-shirt, and a brown leather jacket. If I were to choose the costumes as my favorite aspect of this Cats, the topper would be that of Adria Swan's Demeter. Ford dresses her in dark leggings under a black-lace-yoked, tu-tu-like, sheer white skirt, a sleeveless, black crop top over a long-sleeved gray shirt, and a magenta red wig with large curls on the side of her head to represent ears, with a large hoop earring in one of them. The overall look is so stunning that I found myself focusing on Demeter whenever she was on stage.
Then again, Swan, with her magnetic stage presence and ever-present characterization, deserves much credit for making Demeter so captivating, and all of the actors prove notable for shaping their roles distinctly rather than mimicking previous incarnations, among them Kayla Zeimet as Sillibub. With her meek voice and expression of uncertainty during her "Daylight" solo, Sillibub is obviously a shy kitten, further displayed by the way the rest of the cast looks at her with approving, sympathetic eyes in awareness of her innocence. If forced to make a top pick among the cast, though, it would have to be Chambers. The actor discards the traditional Elvis elements of Rum Tum Tugger and plays this cool cat with suave sexuality and, amusingly, an undertone of a cat-call under every "meow" he sultrily tosses at the other felines. Instead of throwing his personality at us (which would make him a more fitting choice to not only to join, but lead, Rydell High School's T-Birds), Chambers' Rum Tum Tugger moves with a swagger that makes you want to examine and take in his coolness.
But maybe it's the set that I most like about this production. There's no junkyard here. Instead, scenic designer Steven House uses a series of colored boxes of various heights positioned in front of a gorgeous backdrop. House has painted the back of the stage with interconnected, amoeba-shaped colors of blue, red, orange, and yellow, and on top of them, he includes small, black ovals and circles set in a pattern not unlike that of a leopard print. To top it all, he's added a full moon with curved lines orbiting this scenic design to represent the moon's (and eventually the sun's) shine, creating an additional glow beneath Davis' lighting effects.
All things considered, then, I'd rather not choose a favorite part of the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's Cats, simply because I can't. Aside from the prologue involving the voice-overs of two young girls discussing what their cat does at night - which is funny, but disconnected in tone from the rest of the piece - and Macavity's (Kris Doss') design making him look like Fred Flintstone as a Dragonball Z character, every element of this production is my top pick for the best-in-show. I laughed. I cried. This Cats is better than Cats.
Cats runs at the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre (311 Riverview Drive, Clinton) through June 21, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)242-6760 or visiting ClintonShowboat.org.