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With "Cats" closing down, Style's theater critic heads to Broadway to sift through the litter box.

Requiem for a Lightweight

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It has been celebrated, imitated, ridiculed, and ultimately taken for granted. It is to modern theater what "Star Wars" is to modern film: a show that in retrospect stands as a fateful turning-point, a demarcation between things artistic and pure and things crass and commercial. It is one of the most unlikely international phenomena ever: a multi-billion dollar musical cash cow built around the banal personalities of domestic pets.

When the announcement came in February that "Cats," the longest running Broadway show ever, would close, it was above-the-fold information, worthy of an 11 o'clock news note even on Richmond's local stations. The show's somewhat ominous marketing line — "Now and Forever" — was suddenly reduced to "Now and For Only Three More Months." Pundits used the occasion to reissue tired proclamations about the woeful state of theater and the fateful role "Cats" played in its demise. Seminal New York Times critic Frank Rich even used a piece celebrating Stephen Sondheim's 70th birthday to beat this tired old horse.

For me, the announcement was a signal to haul my weary butt northward and finally go see the damn thing.

I know: I am supposed to have at least a clue about theater and, up until a few weeks ago, I hadn't sat through any of the 7,400-plus performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber's defining work. So sue me. In the 15 or so years that I've been visiting the Great White Way, I was just never in the mood. I've always been more of a dog person and besides, I thought I had until forever.

So I finally bit the bullet, packed up the kids, set out for Times Square. Entering the Winter Garden Theater on a dreary New York afternoon, I was unexpectedly impressed. If you don't know, the set of "Cats" is decorated floor to ceiling with oversized faux garbage in order to create the ambiance of a junkyard from a cat's perspective. I was filled with perverse anticipatory thoughts: Would the set's authenticity carry over into the show? Would I see human-sized cats shredding enormous pieces of furniture? Smelling each other's privates? Hacking up hairballs as big as grapefruits?

Alas, I was to be disappointed on many different levels. Thanks to the actors' sloppy diction and the music's overamplification, the show was often incomprehensible. The words that could be understood, though written by poet T.S. Eliot, were trite and silly with the gravitas of a Chia pet. As a whole, it was all style, little substance. But still, it wasn't bad enough to dismiss totally. Several of Lord Webber's tunes have a nagging hummability. And, though I'm ashamed to admit it, "Memory" tugged at my heartstrings.

So now that I've been there, done that, I'm left feeling angry. Not at Lloyd Webber and crew — they perpetrated a show with a shameless desire to entertain, a strategy that the Disney demagogues would have (and have since) caught on to anyway. Not at the mindless tourists whose indiscriminate appreciation of a mediocre vehicle like "Cats" kept it puttering along for nearly two decades. Not even at the greedy Broadway producers who, in the wake of the feline wave, realized the catniplike power of theatrical spectacles and who now only put up a show if it has at least one hydraulic device in it.

No, I'm angry at the critics who have blamed "Cats" for every dog on Broadway since 1982 and for the inevitable dumbing down of the Broadway musical. Listen: Elvis revolutionized music, "Star Wars" changed cinema, and "Cats" remade Broadway. But does the King get blamed for the Spice Girls? George Lucas for "Wild Wild West"? Accept the new paradigm and move on. And for God's sake, enjoy the beneficial side effects. While critic Rich bellyaches about his slim pickins in the Big Apple, out here in the hinterlands, things get more interesting all the time.

Burgeoning budgets pushed real action in theater off Broadway and into the regions long ago, and Richmond has been one of many recipients of this good fortune. We've had home-grown revues like the Barksdale's "Ella and Her Fella Frank." We've seen offbeat new musicals that tackle unusual subjects like "Violet" at the Barksdale last fall and "Floyd Collins," currently at Swift Creek Mill Theater. And we've been challenged by completely new animals that mix music and theater in unexpected ways like Danny Hoch's "Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop" and Clay McCleod Chapman's "The Pumpkin Pie Show."

It's these new animals that should inspire a certain reverence for "Cats." After all, back when it was just a kitten, the show was revolutionary in its own way. Lavish design and technology had never dominated a production so completely. In the 21st century, we have rap music and multimedia elbowing their way to the stage. Someday soon someone will incorporate these modern elements into a new theatrical phenomenon. It's that certainty that keeps me going to shows, so that when the next "Cats" clambers to the top of the scratching post, I can say I saw it first, rather than

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