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Review: Cats at Dubai Opera is as purr-fect as it timeless

Given that Cats has been seen by more than 73 million people worldwide, it is more than likely that a fair number of those who watched the first UAE performance of the musical – at Dubai Opera, where it runs until January 28 – will have seen it before.

They would not have left this international touring production disappointed.

Yet it is those new to the show who might best notice that Cats, first staged in London in 1981, has some prescient parallels reflecting issues affecting society in our trying times.

Its heart-warming message, iltimately, is that the motley crew of moonlighting felines is, like any society, a collective, back-scratching community that thrives when they work together for the greater good.

On the other hand, this special social strata of felines – “jellicle cats”, as they are called– is something akin to a secret, elite society that meets once a year for a special midnight gathering.

The poor, ageing Grizabella, however, was cast out for daring to seek out the non-jellicle world, and is later sacrificially led off to be “reborn”.

Collectivism, tolerance, identity politics – it is all in there. A politics or sociology student might have a field day. It is heady stuff, and all so true – but before we get ahead of ourselves, let us remember we are talking about cats, fictional ones, too.

The plot is bonkers – because there is no plot. In adapting poet T S Eliot’s playful Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber effectively ditched the expected hallmarks of musical theatre, redefining the genre as a big, showboating, dance-centric spectacle – recasting what had traditionally been the trimmings as the main event.

In technical terms, this Dubai production is the real deal – the same 1981 Cameron Mackintosh/Really Useful Theatre Production that ran uninterrupted on London’s West End for 21 years, and won a Tony for Best Musical on Broadway.

Each of Elliot’s poems explores a different feline caricature – the withered survivor, the glamour puss, the fat cat – which play out onstage like a ceaseless run of solo introductions, tediously never leading to a main event.

For casting agents, this must be the greatest headache –such a structure demands 17 “lead” roles (in a total cast of 28). Rather than relying on a handful of key principles to steer this show-boat, Cats demands everyone on stage is in the spotlight, wheeled out one after another to perform circus-style set pieces.

At Tuesday’s opening performance, the clear audience favourite was swaggering rock-star, ladies’ cat Rum Tum Tugger, with Spanish actor Pepe Muñoz channelling more than a hint of vintage David Bowie.

One could detect a hint of Marilyn Monroe, watching Sophia McAvoy’s sultry Victoria the White Cat prowl the stage.

At times, tongues are deep in cheek: the Bustopher Jones routine – the insatiable “25 pounder” – feels like a cheap, seaside pantomime, while the climatic fight between Macavity and Munkustrap is pure Punch and Judy.

The most pressure is heaped on Joanna Ampil, who follows Elaine Page’s iconic turn as Grizabella, tasked with performing the song Memory – a standalone hit recorded by more than 150 artists.

While the subdued rendition that closed the first half left the room unimpressed, the later main event proved the Filipino talent an adequate choice. Yet that well-known moment is far from representative of the score. Lloyd Webber is known for his smash-and-grab eclecticism – and appropriation – but the stop-start structure of Cats releases his inner mad scientist, leaping through parodies of head-banging rock excess, big-band swing and horror-movie soundtracks with brazen aplomb, all expertly performed by an eight-piece band directed by Tim Davies.

Combined with the impeccable dance routines and ridiculous stage garb, it is easy to see how Cats could be seen as a forebear of the attention-deficit MTV generation.

Cats is at Dubai Opera until January 28 (no show on January 22), at 8pm daily (7pm on Saturdays), plus 2pm matinées on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets, from Dh275, at www.dubaiopera.com

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