“I don’t want people to think that this is what musical theater is,” says actor Natalie Shaw about the new movie Cats, “but I hope this inspires more people to see musical theater just to be like, ‘Okay, is it always like this? Are shows always this weird?’”
In cinemas, Cats is looking like an epic flop despite being one of the most talked-about holiday releases. Critics have taken their claws out for Tom Hooper’s star-studded adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 stage musical, and Twin Cities theater artists understand why.
“The dancing was at best Step Up: Take It to the Litter Box,” says actor Patrick Kozicky. “The acting was sloppy, and the CGI was alarmingly difficult to look at. While the stage version is innocent and playful, the movie is unnecessarily sexed-up and borderline offensive.”
“Why are cats wearing shoes?” asks Shaw, beginning a long list of oddities and disappointments. “Many of these performers didn’t sound warmed-up, were not hitting the right notes—sorry, Rebel Wilson and Francesca Hayward. Jason Derulo has a cockney accent that’s unneeded. And there’s this underlying tone of horniness that’s very strange! All these cats have bedroom eyes for each other.”
How does that even work, given that they’re cat-human hybrids with infamously airbrushed genitals? “I don’t know how they have cat sex,” admits Shaw. “I really don’t know.”
While Hooper has blamed a rushed timeline for the subpar CGI (a supposedly improved version was dispatched to theaters days after the film’s release), Walking Shadow Theatre Company co-founder John Heimbuch, who says watching Cats onstage “was a formative experience for me as a theater artist,” sees larger problems.
“The play doesn’t really have a plot,” he says. “The movie felt the need to insert all these typical Hollywood things that defied the very nature of what the play was and robbed it of a huge part of what made it special.”
Onscreen, says Heimbuch, the “joy of the play” is lost amid elaborate, uncanny visual effects. “There’s something about being there that this show requires... it just is a bunch of people onstage pretending to be cats and other things, like pretending to be mice or pretending to be cockroaches or pretending to make a train.”
So Cats the movie is bad... is it so bad it’s good? “It’s a new era of Rocky Horror or The Room,” says Shaw. “I think it’s going to have a cult following. I’m so excited to take more of my friends. It already felt like I was at a midnight screening.”
“This movie feels like a situation where a group of otherwise very talented individuals were certain that they could do no wrong,” says Kozicky, adding a plea on behalf of a star whose furry makeup becomes amply moistened with tears and a runny nose, all shot in prolonged close-up. “Can someone please give Jennifer Hudson a tissue?”