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Frisky new 'Cats' makes the junkyard shine at Shea's Buffalo

They're back. "Cats," the musical revue with as many lives as its fuzzily costumed characters, has taken over Shea's Buffalo Theatre with a fresh new energy.

"Cats" lovers will be thrilled, and "Cats" newcomers get to see what it means when someone says a show is as good as, or better than, "Cats."

It has been more than 30 years since "Cats" first played in Buffalo -- the inaugural tour happening before many in the current cast were alive. Perhaps that's why so many of them seem to have been born to wear the famous whiskers, prowling, leaping and pouncing with an elegant athleticism that would make any "real" puss proud.

That's important in a show like "Cats," which otherwise has about as much plot as a Super Bowl halftime show. The audience is there for the characters and the visuals. The revised choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler broadens the original dances into more of a multi-ring circus, always giving us more than one place to look, just as he did with Tony-winning flair in "Hamilton."

It works. Whether climbing over the massive junkyard set or bounding down the theater aisles like kittens, the actors playing Victor and Victoria, Cassandra and Bombalurina, Jennyanydot and all the rest are a furry flurry of action.

Some cats we get to know better than others. The rockin' leather-coated Rum Tum Tugger, for instance, who is the hunk of the junkyard. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber first showed his fondness for all things Elvis-ish when he put sideburns on Pharaoh in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." McGee Maddox ably picks up the King's baton, swing his hips with campy joy under his sexy mane and leopard spots.

Brandon Michael Nase brings strongly voiced gravitas to Old Deuteronomy and Timothy Gulan embodies a winking wisdom as two of the other senior cats, stout Bustopher Jones and raggedy theater cat Gus.

Of course, none of that would matter if Keri Rene Fuller didn't bring it home as Grizabella, the forlorn faded beauty who sings the show's operatic  iconic song, "Memory." "Memory's" two-act rendition remind us that "Cats" is about more than a mob of feral felines.

Nine lives or not, it serves as a reminder that growing old means wanting to be remembered. Gus expresses it with humor in "The Awful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles," the raucous second act number that gives dogs a brief moment in the show and wakes the kids back up.

Playfulness gets back on track when the cats make a train out of an umbrella and scraps for Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat and the Magical Mister Mistoffelees (Tion Gaston, in a balletic star turn) lights up the stage.

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Then, finally, Grizabella returns to show us what she really was talking about, taking "Memory" to the rafters and knocking it out of the park. The audience responded appropriately.

The cats in "Cats" are inspired by T.S. Eliot's poems in "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," which most people have never read, and they don't enjoy the kind of ready-made familiarity of characters from well-known fairy tales or children's books, like "Aladdin" or the "Wicked" witches. The show is comprised of one introduction after another, but unlike the audition theme in "A Chorus Line," there's no particular goal here.

Also, the show can be overlong for young children and for those who find some of Lloyd Webber's songs overwritten and repetitive.

But the 10-year-old sitting next to me, who in the first act started to wonder when intermission was coming, also nearly burst out of her seat when the cats came off stage and starting singing in the aisles, almost within petting distance. At that point, she knew what happiness was and the night will be a memory, too.

Theater review

"Cats"

3 stars (out of four)

The durable family musical "Cats" has undergone a refresher for its staging and choreography for this new national tour, stopping at Shea's Buffalo Theatre, 646 Main St., through Feb. 10. Tickets are $32-$82 (box office, sheas.org).

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