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Back in the heyday of movie musicals, it was not uncommon to see a successful Broadway show made into a motion picture within a few years of its opening. Shows like 'Music Man' and 'Oklahoma' were established hits with audiences long before they ever became larger-than-life movies. More often than not, the Broadway actors who originated the roles would reprise them in the movie- Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins or Robert Preston's Harold Hill, for example.

Today, the film industry and Broadway rarely collide creatively. While films of such Broadway musicals as Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita have been made over the years, audiences are often left with the impression that the film version is drastically different from the Broadway version they may have seen. Rarely are stage performances captured as they occurred onstage in front of a live audience.

That is, until the release of CATS:The Musical. Filmed on a closed set in the heart of the London Theater district, CATS:The Musical perfectly recreates the live feel of actors onstage, while exploring the possibilities allowed by the film medium. The producers of CATS filmed two entire run-throughs of the theatrical version, and then spent an entire month filming close-ups and medium shots of the cast as they went through their paces. Andrew Lloyd Webber himself directed a 70 piece orchestra through a lavish remix of the original score, making it the best recording of the music to date.

Webber based his musical on a series of poems written by TS Eliot entitled 'Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats'. In these poems, Eliot describes a tribe known as the Jellicle Cats. These cats may appear ordinary to their owners, but are actually blessed with many fascinating powers and talents. Once a year, the Jellicle Cats are summoned to the Jellicle Ball, an all-night party for the feline set. Presiding over this revery is the elder statesman, Old Deuteronomy. His main task is to select a cat who has earned the right to be reborn into a different Jellicle existance. He is assisted by Munkustrap, a natural born leader of the Jellicles and chief protector. Various cats audition for Old Deuteronomy, including an outcast named Grizzabella. Between auditions, Munkustrap and company perform an elaborate spoof on dog behavior and a few dances.
After a terrible turn of events involving a renegade cat named McCavity, the Jellicle choice is made and all is well, until the next Ball is convened.

What makes CATS so interesting to watch is the absolute believability of the cast. Although the makeup for the video version has been toned down considerably, the actors manage to convey the essence of cats through body language and attitude. We see young kittens who are fascinated by everything around them, and old veterans who have seen it all. Some cats are aloof, while others are natural acrobats. To enter the world of CATS is to enter the realm of magic.

In keeping with his desire to use only the best ingredients for the CATS film, Webber cast the actors who either originated their roles or are considered to be the ideal for that character. Veteran actor Ken Page is perfect as the sage Old Deuteronomy. His voice ranges from basso profundo to soaring counter-tenor effortlessly, and he brings much solemnity and presence to a sometimes thankless role. Belgian actress Veerle Casteleyn shines as Jemima, a role originated by Webber's former wife Sarah Brightman. Jemima is a cat on the verge of adulthood, and Casteleyn brings a refreshing openness and budding sexuality to the role. In the demanding role of Munkustrap, Michael Gruber delivers an astonishing performance, as his pleasant tenor voice narrates and frames the story. Finally, Elaine Paige reprises her role as the outcast Grizzabella. Her powerful rendition of the signature song 'Memories' is a highlight among a field of highlights. Jacob Brent demonstrates a level of dance rarely seen onscreen, as he reprises his role as the inscrutable Mr. Mistoffolees. Although his solo dance following the song 'Magical Mr. Mistoffolees' was cut from the final version, Brent's effortless dancing is not to be missed.

There are a few flaws in "CATS: The Musical," however. Editing is a hit-and-miss proposition, with glaring cuts made during and after musical numbers. Particularly noticeable are the sudden cuts made at the end of 'JennyAnyDots', just before Rum Tum Tugger makes his scene-stealing entrance. Rum Tum Tugger also has a choice word or two for Grizzabella, which is fortunately unmiked, but unmistakable for lip readers. Some of the singing is dubbed, for various reasons. In fact, controversy still surrounds the claim that two of the major actors, Drew Varley and Jo Gibb, were dubbed. In truth, the actors did supply their own voices, but the credits still list two session musicians as vocalists. CATS also suffers slightly from the lack of audience interaction, which tends to put some distance between the viewer and the action onstage.

Despite a few missteps, "CATS: The Musical" is still a wondrous sight to behold, with mesmerizing performances and a score that I guarantee you will be humming under your breath. It should be the yardstick by which future musicals are filmed. The viewer is always aware that he or she is watching a live performance, with actors giving their all for that one routine or song. CATS on video and DVD is truly the next best thing to seeing a live performance, and many believe that the performances captured on film are the best that have ever been. Cast members may come and go, but fans of CATS can always slip in a tape or disk and visit that magical world of the Jellicle cats whenever they need an escape from the world.