Willoughby Theatre Company: Cats - Review by Daniel Conway
Updated: Oct 22
I have never been what you would call a fan of sports. I grew up around it, and I know bits of trivia here and there, but it is not my thing. However, I, like the rest of Australia, couldn't help but get caught up in the buzz of the Women's World Cup. The skill of the players on the pitch, the technical aspects, and, most importantly, the buzz and excitement of everyone around me. You can't help but pay attention when everything around the thing that you don't enjoy is so impressive. The reason I say all this is to preface; I do not like the musical Cats, but the spectacle that was produced by Willoughby Theatre Company is impressive, professional, and had the audience so excited that I could not help but enjoy myself.
This is a show where every aspect is thought through, and I cannot speak highly enough of the team led by Director Stig Bell, Choreographer Stephanie Edmonds, and Musical Director Matthew Herne. The vision of this production and the attention to detail is never more evident than the breathtaking stage that greets you as you enter the theatre. I have seen a number of shows at WTC, and staging is a strength of this company, so I do not say this lightly; Cats has one of the best sets I have ever seen in community theatre. From the moon peeking through the background, the whimsical tree in the center stage to the color of the wood that made up the bulk of the structure, this is a set I will remember. The vision of Bell and Set designer Neil Shotter's set is paired perfectly with outstanding choreography. Cats is a dancer's musical; structurally, it has more in common with ballet, with thematic vignettes rather than a traditional musical, but dance and movement are at the core of the story. It is for this reason I am breaking with tradition and talking about the work of Edmonds and her team before the music. You have tap dancing, aerial skills, ensemble work, levels. Edmonds packed this show from beginning to end with really impressive choreography at a very high standard. The whole stage was used so effectively; there was very little wasted movement. I referred to this production as a spectacle, and the work of Edmonds is a massive part of why this word is so fitting. While this is a dancer's musical, it is still a musical, and Herne's work is also just so impressive. Cats has some very well-known numbers, with "Memory" being one of those songs that everyone has heard, even if you have never seen the musical. But, in my opinion, this show is strongest when the ensemble creates a wall of sound. Herne has gotten the best out of this cast vocally; I could not find a single note out of place, which is so impressive when you have so many words sung or spoken in unison. Reading the credits in the program, it is obvious that this was a massive undertaking, and each and every person involved should be proud of the show they have brought to life.
At the heart of Cats are, well, the cats. This is a truly ensemble show, and while there are individuals that I will name, I cannot stress this enough; the most enjoyable moments of the show for me were when the ensemble worked together to bring the stage alive. Jerome Studdy is a standout, not only for his beautiful aerial work but also for his voice, poise, and presence on stage. Studdy's Munkustrap is a conductor of sorts, leading the cats and the audience into the Jellicle Ball. The Patriarch of the Jellicle cats, Old Deuteronomy, is played by Gavin Brightwell, who has such a beautiful and rich voice. Brightwell's voice resonated so well and brought a sense of strength and command needed for the role. Nikole Music, as Grizabella, has the most well-known song of the show, "Memory." Because of the nature of the show and the iconic nature of the song, an actor playing Grizabella has not much stage time to establish themselves to the audience, so that the song does not come off as a great recital of a well-known performance. Music manages to do this, with effective body language and emoting; she doesn't feel like a copy of a performance but rather makes it her own. My favorite number was "Macavity: The Mystery Cat," which was led by Hana McKinney and Paloma Renouf. As a pair, McKinney and Renouf sound wonderful together and really shine as the center of the number. As I said, this is an ensemble show; I could list everyone, but that would not be practical.
WTC knows how to put on a show. This is now the second straight production that they have taken a classic show and really impressed me with the professionalism and talent evident in their productions. While my opinion on Cats is likely to never change, it is still not clear what Jellicle means or why cats have three names, but I can't know the third - The craft of this show is worth the price of admission. I give this production 4 Jellicle ratings out of 5 (I still don't know if I am using that word right).