CP Summer Theatre certainly wasn't waxing nostalgic when it tabbed Cats for its final mainstage musical at Pease Auditorium. In its 32 seasons on Elizabeth Avenue, the company had never performed Andrew Lloyd Webber's megahit.
And Charlotte's first homegrown production of Cats would have seemed like an obvious choice for unveiling CPCC's new theater facility this fall. That honor has been reserved for The Sound of Music on November 11. Proving once again that those sensitive administrators at CP have their fingers on the pulse of a new generation of theatergoers.
Having seen the national tour of Cats when it first catnapped in Charlotte, I was bracing myself for excruciating tedium. It's pretty lethal when nonsensical lyrics are served up unintelligibly, when episodes are sequenced with plenty of rhyme but hardly a scrap of reason, and action is allowed to stop dead in its tracks -- like naptime in kindergarten.
But you know what? Hollis and co-director Eddie Mabry have unearthed charms that quite eluded the national tour. An ensemble that looked and often sounded bland and generic during Seven Brides last month now sparkles and swaggers with individuality.
The design team overachieves, producing faux caviar on its catfood budget. John Shamburger's set has a grungy nocturnal aura, transcending functionality at Pease for the first time in years. Cats prowling in this domain are finely delineated in Dawn Shamburger's costumes, flamboyantly crowned by Ryan Fischer's wig and makeup designs.
Mabry's choreography, as expected, vibrantly fills the stage, but the real surprise is the Lloyd Webber score under Drina Keen's dynamic musical direction. Details in the overture -- and in the incidental music between songs -- spring vividly to life. CP's choral ensemble, too, sounds aroused where the tour was sleepwalking.
Olivia Edge delivers her most consistent performance to date as bedraggled glamour cat Grizabella, building her iterations of "Memory" to showstopping force as she finally receives Old Deuteronomy's redemptive benediction. Corey Mitchell gives that most mystical of alley cats a visionary gleam, singing Old D with oracular clarity, and lifting up the opening of Act 2, where T.S. Eliot's Old Possum briefly gives way to the loftiness of The Four Quartets.
The quavers that have crept into Gerald K. Colbert's voice are delightfully apt for the midlife decrepitude Bustopher Jones and the mock heroism of the piratical Growltiger. Among the younger cubs, Austin Owens' powerful baritone sets him apart from the clowder as Muskustrap, and Michael Allen swivels his rump -- and primps his mane -- with the requisite Elvis gusto as Rum Tum Tugger.
Nothing wrong with Lauren Rogers as Jennyanydots, Stephanie Swant as Rumpleteazer, or the redoubtable Susan Knowlson as Grindlebone -- if you can stomach such high doses of saccharine. I did struggle to sustain interest when the silliness reached full throttle, and my wife (who would prefer to see cats of all stripes turned into catsup) never was won over. But kids and true believers will surely experience a jellicle ball. Whatever that is.