The cast of "Cats: 'The Jellicle Ball'" at PAC NYC.
The cast of “Cats: ‘The Jellicle Ball'” at PAC NYC. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The Rundown

“When you fall on your head do you land on your feet?” And do we even know what that means? Perhaps something far different in PAC NYC’s revelatory revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical than what poet T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, published in 1939. 

Cats rose to the Heaviside Layer when it premiered on Broadway in 1982, winning seven Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and running for 7,485 performances. When marketing geniuses came up with the tagline, “Now and Forever,” they weren’t being ironic. A revival, reasonably close to the original, ran just 17 months, and who could forget (as much as we’d like to try) the 2019 CGI film version starring Taylor Swift, Ian McKellen, Rebel Wilson, and Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, the Glamour Cat.

But renowned theater director Bill Rauch had another kind of Cats in mind. One that moved the musical out of the junkyard and onto the runway. Enter Cats: “The Jellicle Ball”.

No Tea, No Shade

The cast of "Cats: The Jellicle Ball" at PAC NYC.
The cast of “Cats: ‘The Jellicle Ball'” at PAC NYC. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Whether they’re presented as felines or fierce queens werking the runway, Cats is most successful in its exuberant maximalism. Who could forget Betty Buckley (or Leona Lewis in the Broadway revival) ascending to the Heaviside Layer on an oversized tire as fog cascaded into the audience?

Nothing like Gillian Lynne’s pack-like choreography, beautifully lyrical and mesmerizingly athletic, had ever been seen. Nor had a theater undergone such a massive makeover — John Napier’s scenic and costume design thrilled audiences. But Rauch and his creative cohort have a different kind of cat in mind.

Originally conceived as a way to transform Grizabella from a glamour cat into an aging customer bellied up at a gay bar, Rauch (who directed a queer-centric Oklahoma!) quickly pivoted to recentering Cats in the queer ballroom scene. He enlisted the insights of dramaturg and gender consultant Josephine Kearns, choreographers Omari Wiles and Arturo Lyons, and co-director Zhailon Levingston. Over several years, Cats: “The Jellicle Ball” began to take shape.

Is Cats: “The Jellicle Ball” as radical as we’d hoped? It depends on who you ask. A typical theater attendee (The Broadway League reports its average theatergoer is 40 years old, and only 29% identify as BIPOC) might dismiss the musical as creative but still stuck in the pastiche of the original. But a stage overflowing and celebrating queer culture in all its shapes, sizes, genders, and orientations is nothing short of revolutionary.

"Tempress" Chasity Moore as Grizabella in "Cats: 'The Jellice Ball.'"
“Temptress” Chasity Moore as Grizabella in “Cats: ‘The Jellice Ball.'” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The musical’s viewpoint swaps trauma for triumph. Grizabella, played by ballroom icon “Tempress” Chasity Moore, is commonly portrayed as the tribe’s outcast. Here, she’s revered, welcomed back, and elevated (in this case, on a staircase that looks like it leads to your favorite dance club’s V.I.P. room). Tony winner André De Shields brings his requisite austerity as Old Deuteronomy, as does ballroom legend Junior LeBeija as Gus, the Theatre Cat.

But it is Lyons and Wiles’ choreography that takes center stage. The catwalk sizzles with categories, including Old Way and New Way, Runway, Tag Team, and Face, among others. Expect voguing, duckwalks, and plenty of looks served thanks to Qween Jean’s costume design.

Does Cats: “The Jellicle Ball” achieve 10s across the board? Perhaps not. The adaptation occasionally finds itself trying to reimagine a form it was never intended for. But isn’t that the story of the queer community through history? We’ve done it anyway, so let’s stop keeping score.

Let’s Have a Moment

Cats: “The Jellicle Ball” went viral on social media before the performance started when the production released rehearsal footage of “Prologue: Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats.” Lyons and Wiles’ choreography inspired dozens of copycats (pun intended), from fellow dancers to vogue-loving seniors.

“I could see the catlike instincts, but why would we want to do this?” said Wiles in an interview with INTO. “Then I was like, damn, this makes more sense than Cats itself.”

The Last Word

For all its sparkle and synthetic fabrics (of which there are plenty), Cats: The Jellicle Ball serves the real deal for those who rarely have the opportunity to see their lived experiences on stage and others who are tired of movie-to-musical adaptions or Hollywood celebrities undercutting the potential employment of New York talent.

“It’s my responsibility as someone who has opened the doors, blazed trails, and learned the lesson that once the doors open, you mustn’t close it,” De Shields said in a recent interview.

André De Shields in "Cats: 'The Jellicle Ball.'"
André De Shields in “Cats: ‘The Jellicle Ball.'” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

De Shields’ career has spanned over five decades and has seen the theater industry change. Those changes may not have always proved fruitful for anyone living at the intersection of Black, Brown, and queer communities, proving to be more of a hindrance instead. But with this rendition of Cats, he sees a new theater revolution beginning. 

“There are those of us who have been traditionally marginalized to the edges of society. Well, that’s our calling card. We can’t be afraid,” said De Shields. “We must look to the future, understand, and know that there is a positive solution on its way. So what Old Deuteronomy is doing for me is giving me the opportunity to stay on the edge of the revolution. Because this is a revolution.”

Cats: “The Jellicle Ball” plays at PAC NYC through July 28.

@pac_nyc A round of applause for the first week of performances for #catsthejellicleball ♬ original sound – PAC NYC

Help make sure LGBTQ+ stories are being told...

We can't rely on mainstream media to tell our stories. That's why we don't lock Queerty articles behind a paywall. Will you support our mission with a contribution today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated