NEW YORK >> During this divisive election season, there's yet another potentially fractious issue we Americans will have to deal with. We mean, of course, "Cats."
The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has its die-hard fans but it also makes some folks turn up their noses in disgust. Well, it's back on Broadway, and for those of us allergic to its charms, the dog-days of summer are going to be long.
The return of the hairball musical opened Sunday at the Neil Simon Theatre and it is still a goofy, overly cheesy dose of feline gruel. As one aged cat says of another — but could easily mean this show — "He isn't the cat that he was in his prime."
Under the direction of the original master, Trevor Nunn, "Cats" hasn't aged much, despite initially landing here under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. It's not been revamped or re-thought, just taken out of mothballs. We've moved on, though.
Original scenic and costume designer John Napier has once again set the show in a garbage dump and his new costumes consist of the same old legwarmers and spiked hair that must have been pretty cool when "Three's Company" was new.
Some things are new but not welcome. Old Deuteronomy (a solid Quentin Earl Darrington) looks more like an enormous Muppet, while Mistoffelees (a terrific Ricky Ubeda) has an LED jacket, without anyone apparently asking why a cat needs an LED jacket. (On the low-tech side, why is Bustopher Jones' tail apparently tied to his back with fishing line? It's 2016.)
Andy Blankenbuehler, fresh off his Tony Award win for "Hamilton," was brought in to bring something more modern to Gillian Lynne's original choreography, which was slinky and jazzy. He has pretty much failed.
The cats onstage seem to move like over-eager wannabe actors on Day One of acting camp. There's nothing at all slinky or animalistic here, just nervous twitches and method hissing. You're better off just watching cat videos on the internet.
The theatrical evolutions since 1982 make "Cats" seem quaint and unsubstantial. It's really not a cohesive show, more a revue with a collection of bombastic rock songs connected by mangy fur. Why it had an almost 18-year run on Broadway is as baffling to me as why cats find stray light bouncing off a mirror amazing.
The British singer Leona Lewis, making her Broadway debut as the heartbreaking Grizabella, has apparently been told to just squint into the middle distance sadly. Her amazing voice gets out of first gear with "Memory" only right at the end and then it blazes. But her grand ascension into kitty heaven is undercut by amateur wire work.
The rest of the cast is uneven. Ubeda is a superb performer and there's a delightfully cocky Tyler Hanes as Rum Tum Tugger, but the ballerina Georgina Pazcoguin was shaky as Victoria. Christopher Gurr was a moving old actor cat Gus, while Jess LeProtto as Mungojerrie and Shonica Gooden as Rumpleteazer ruined their song by being self-congratulatory and smug.
For "Cats" fans, none of this will register. But for those of us who find the show as ineffable and inscrutable as cats themselves, it's a tedious, clawing mess. We subscribe to the lyric Old Deuteronomy sings at the top of Act 2: "We had the experience but missed the meaning."