With a trusted material of songs and dance to its name, the Jellicle Ball returns for a second run in the city, Cats the musical hopes to make even memories in Manila.
Memories are a curious thing. Inscrutable as it can prove to be, upended by a considerable passing of time, there remains a compelling quality to specific slivers of the past piercing through like stalactites and stalagmites in a cavernous labyrinth of pitch black and rhythmic pitter-patters. No matter how far along one may be, these standout scenes linger, rearing its head when necessary, sometimes prodded by a nostalgic trigger. And then before you know it, you’re already consumed by a swell of wistfulness, relishing in the purity of the yesteryears.
This was precisely the pervading scenario at the return of the beloved, long-standing musical hit, Cats during its highly-anticipated return to the Manila stage. The hum of frenzy and chorus of conversations could barely be contained from the audience, which was only tempered by the larger-than-life junkyard looming from the depths of the Theatre at Solaire. But even still, there was virtually no match for the onslaught of reminiscing, recalling, and remembering. From the first Jellicle ball held at the 2010 run of the sung-through and spectacularly danced opus featuring no less than the country’s gleaming gem in theater, Lea Salonga; the upcoming movie musical featuring the stunning vocals of Jennifer Hudson with the other-worldly presence of Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench; and for this writer, a vivid retention of that late weekday afternoon spent poring over the filmed stage performance on an old and dusty VHS tape that best believe was worn out to memorize the snazzy stylings, scintillating suave, and stirring swagger of the Rum Tum Tugger, there plenty of stories that went around just before the first spine-tingling trill of orchestration started to stack up from beyond the stage.
And right before we knew it, we were transported to the imagination of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s retelling of the source material.
As memories stand to be, there is nothing entirely anything new with this revisiting of Cats. The plot remains the same: the tribe of cats, the Jellicles, all converge on one fateful night to make the Jellicle choice, which is the impending decision to be made on who will ascend to the Heavside Layer, a poignant metaphor for coming back to a new life. Much of the musical is spent introducing each of the cats, perhaps a device employed to form connections and enact investments as to who is deserves to transcend the endless masquerading, fading memories, and break through a new day beginning. Typically, introductions are made compact, but this predominantly forms the overarching spine of the show, only to climax in the main draw: Grizabella the Glamour Cat’s medley of Memory and its touching, heart-aching reprise later on.
Again, there is nothing new to hear here, except the sterling vocals of Joanna Ampil who headlines the performance in a gutting portrayal of a figure past her prime. Tattered, worn, and visibly exhausted, the premier actress stuns in her commanding presence, willing everyone acting as voyeurs to the Jellicle proceedings to a puddle of emotions. In an effort to localize the production, a fragment of the cornerstone song that anchors the show is sung in Filipino, which is seamlessly integrated that it hits you as a surprise when it tumbles from the mouth of Sillabub in the opening verse of the reprise in Act II.
“Liwanag, hanapin ang liwanag,
Ang iyong ala-ala ang gabay na sundin
Sa liwanag, ligaya ay matatagpuan
Bagong buhay ay darating.”
The rest of the show is nothing short of a visceral spectacle that stirs the senses with its ingenious mix of makeup, costumes, and of course, the explosive dance numbers that harks on agility and athleticism, as well as of poetry and grace in dynamic exchange. No matter how hard pressed one may be, it will prove to be difficult to not be affected by the production, which employs a sinuous exposition of music and movement, taking one through the leaps and bounds of measuring up and being rejected by a pouncing overlord of society, as book-ended by time and its sometimes unforgiving passing. Naturally, the score and the songs keep the story moving along, which really is the crowning effort of Cats. Whether it’s an upbeat ditty laced with humor, a rick-rolling rock number, or a soaring ballad of valiant courage, the musical proves why it has stood the fleeting temperament of Broadway and the West End, emerging as an enduring classic that remains to be a necessary story to tell even to this day.
Sure, it would help propel it to the future with careful updates, perhaps in contemporary choreography and musical interpretation, but there lies the magic and momentum of the musical. By staying true to its roots, it serves its purpose of preserving a memory and allowing it to decorate the eventual journey one will lead. The beauty of Cats in every rendition and realization is that as one progresses, there stands to be something new to discover and stumble upon, with fascinating facets tucked in the crevices of the musical.
Grizabella says it best in her shining moment, perhaps the most fitting nugget to encapsulate the story of memory and moving:
I must wait for the sunrise.
I must think of a new life
And I mustn’t give in.
When the dawn comes, tonight will be a memory, too,
And a new day will begin.”
Presented by GMG Productions, Cats in Manila runs for a limited run until December 1, 2019 at The Theatre at Solaire. Tickets are still available at TicketWorld.