“Cats: The Jellicle Ball”: prowling the night with an explosive combination of Broadway and Ballroom

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The cast looking towards the camera
The company of CATS: "The Jellicle Ball" at Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC). (Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, the 1981 Olivier Award-winning and 1982 Tony Award-winning Best Musical based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, has been for many a unique theatrical experience. A song cycle draped over the loose framework of an annual feline competition, Cats used the electrifying choreography of Gillian Lynne and a talented troupe of stage dancers to pull audiences into a fantasy tale of hope and redemption.

Cats: The Jellicle Ball takes the music and, using the talents of Ballroom legend choreographers Omari Wiles and Arturo Lyons, takes the competition story from the original and turns it into an extravagant foray into the sensuous, sexually charged world of Ballroom culture. It is a wild ride that starts from the first notes of the intro and propels its clapping, cheering audience into enthusiastic participation in a celebration of body and gender pride.

We are introduced to the Jellicle Ball, an annual competition where the prize is a new life, by Munkustrap, the evening’s MC (Dudney Joseph Jr.), a solid bear of a cat. Various cats strut their stuff on the runway: 1950’s style Jennyanydots (Xavier Reyes); the Rum Tum Tugger (Sydney James Harcourt), a rippling-muscled contrarian; Bustopher Jones (Emma Sofia), a formally-attired, socially gregarious fat cat; and the cat burglar team from Victoria Grove, NJ, Mungojerrie (Jonathan Burke) and Rumpleteazer (Dava Huesca). During all this, Grizabella (“Tempress” Chastity Moore), a once-glamorous feline now past her prime, warily makes her way along the edges of the activity, with many of the other cats snubbing her.

The arrival of the leader of the cats, Old Deuteronomy (Andre De Shields), starts the earnest competition for the chance to gain a new start at life. The “heavy hitters” come out to display why they should win the prize.

There’s Macavity (Antwayn Hopper), a master criminal who’s never at the scene of any of his crimes. Asparagus, or just Gus for short (Junior LaBeija), glides slowly down the runway accompanied by his granddaughter Jellylorum (Shereen Pimentel), relating tales of his glory days on the stage. The railroad cat, Skimbleshanks (Emma Sofia), tells of how the night express train cannot run without his assistance. Magical Mister Mistoffelees (Robert “Silk” Mason) transports Old Deuteronomy from unjust imprisonment to freedom on the runway. Finally, with the urging of Old Deuteronomy, Grizabella relates her glamorous rise, her lamentable fall, and the power of hope contained in each new sunrise.

The show boasts an outstanding cast of singers and dancers that captures the essence of their feline characters without having to wear fake tails or obvious cat-face makeup. They are everywhere in the theater: in the aisles, on the runway, on each of the multiple seating levels, captured in quick bursts of light so that oh-my-God-they’re-right-next-to-me! (My partner Bill got flirted with by one of Macavity’s “associates”, Demeter.) 

Chasity Moore on stage wearing a black and white sequin gown
“Tempress” Chasity Moore in CATS: “The Jellicle Ball” at Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC). (Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Normally I tend to find the contributions of the costume, make-up, and hair and wig designers to be either appropriate or inappropriate. In Cats: The Jellicle Ball, Qween Jean’s costumes are bright, glittery, skin-tight, sexy as hell, and outlandishly fabulous to the nth degree. Matched with Rania Zohny’s make-up designs and Nikiya Mathis’ hair and wig designs, you get a large 23-person cast whose individual characters are undeniably unique creations.

There are many shows I plan to cover during the summer months. Of all the ones I’ve seen so far, Cats: The Jellicle Ball is the first must-see theatrical spectacle of the season. Go now before this show comes to the end of its limited engagement!

Cats: The Jellicle Ball is presented by the Perelman Performing Arts Center, 251 Fulton Street in New York through Aug. 11, 2024. For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to pacnyc.org.