What to do with a musical filled with felines, animals I strongly dislike because of their diva attitude, a threadbare plot, and discombobulating lines that make me ill from T.S. Elliot, a poet I heard last in high school whom I didn't even pay attention to and never did after except in disembodied quotes? What else but cough up one whole hippopotamus of a ticket each, which a friend and I had to save up for in increments for one whole year and not watch other (local) stagings including Equus?
Having close to zero background turned out to have its upsides and downsides. Zero expectations mean a high probability rate of being surprised. I knew, however, that not having preread a script as has been my habit would result in failure to ingest the essence of a story. But did I come here for the story anyway? Like I said, there's no story, no conflict, to talk about, and I don't get a legal high about the idea of humans essaying all sorts of cats: fat cats, big cats, cats in a cat-and-mouse, catty cats, Felix-the-cat types, etc. But -- surprise -- the show proved to be still enjoyable in ways that convinced me that theater still matters because it's a medium that translates very, very poorly to other forms.
There is this something, some indefinable element, lost in translation, and I figure that's what we willingly paid for and not regret a cent of it: that mysterious element that can only be had from the meticulous costume and makeup work, the ligament-defying dance choreography, the dazzling lighting effects, the imaginatively entertaining staging of props and set design, the live act, the songs ranging from the whispery and wistful to the anthemic and rock opera-like, the live music and the sound effects, the audience interaction and instantaneous response, and the grandness of the location/venue (Imelda Marcos-built edifice with its carpeted winding staircases will make you love her in spite of...), which needless to say filled with theater-goers dressed to the nines. There's some guilty feeling in the thought, though, that we never go to Sunday Mass this way except when there's a wedding and a baptism, yet we do don our best when watching such a play as this.
The last time we had something close to this, it was Miss Saigon, which proved to be every second worth it, even though we had some bones to pick with the story. Admittedly, it's the sheer knowledge that we were watching a big show straight from Broadway, with some original cast members, many of whom were homegrown, that did it. But oh, how we were dazzled by the actual play no matter who's in it! Oh wait, who's in it certainly mattered too. The thought that we were prepared to be entertained by Lea Salonga et al. was more than enough reason to watch too.
Which brings us to the question whether we were inclined to watch the Australian production of Cats minus Lea Salonga, given a material that a friend says was often lambasted in David Letterman's late-night TV show. A certain head-shaking proved reflexive as an answer -- chiefly because we were not aware that the Aussie talents are equally great -- there was even a jaw-dropping tenor and a mind-blowing diva character in the cast!
A local reviewer claims that, beneath all that giddy acclaim, Cats is dated and feels like a concert filled with one grand production after another; if he means to say That's Entertainment, I am inclined to replay, yeah, quite so. But missing out on something like Cats is also missing a big opportunity. It means missing a spectacle that's really grand, missing a personal witness to the singing of "Memory," the one evocative song that not so much extols nostalgia as moves the hearer to behold old age with well-deserved regard. That one final scene with the grizzled (though more of sweet-sounding) Grizabella is certainly edifying, soul-magnifying, even though admittedly the character calls for someone really old like Barbara Streisand or, um, Shirley Bassey.
One unexpected touch I am grateful for is hearing a Tagalog translation of that song, which I've read several days before, posted by no less than the translator himself, Mr. Pete Lacaba, in a certain egroup I belong. It went this way (not a literal translation, but very good):
Liwanag, harapin ang liwanag.
Ang iyong alaala ang gabay na sundin.
Sa liwanag, ligaya ay matatagpuan,
Bagong buhay ay darating.
To suddenly hear it in the middle of the musical sung by an Aussie cat (who was outed by the way he/she pronounced da-ra-TEENG) is no less stupefying personally -- but even without that little knowledge, the audience also broke into a rapturous applause, to my surprise.
If I may bitch just because I can, it is that the stage looked more like a grungy mice habitat than a cats' lair. If that's an intended irony, well, I stand pat because I know for a fact that what cats hate the most is dirtiness -- dirty look, dirty paws, dirty food, dirty toilet habits.
Finally, let me go back to that bit about theater's indefinable quality that makes it worth all the bother. Why does theater indeed matter (as an alternate mode of entertainment)?
- Is it the feeling that you are a physical part of the show (a balcony cat even bumped my side with its tail; a giant cat even went up where we were for some photo op)?
- Is it the breathtaking realization that you are one with the theater-going public in celebrating life and excellent work and performance that not even an inclement weather could stand in the way (LOL, 'twas actually raining cats and dogs that night!)?
-Is it the elevating feeling you get in the encounter between lofty thoughts and your own response to them? Is it the opportunity to witness in person both performer and audience as evident human beings, who breathe in, breathe out, perspire, cough and commit a little booboo, throw a furtive glance like you do?
-Is it the medium's ability to transport you into another world, literally, without the detachment imparted by another impersonal medium, in which case theater is really a mediumless medium, the kind that even non-stories, even impressionistic or theme pieces like this can stand on their own?
-Is it the absence of intrusive camerawork, the director's interpretive closeups and panning, and all other limitations?
Maybe it's all that, and Cats is certainly all that -- and more.