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'Cats' at Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre

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A cast of thousands

Andrew Lloyd Webber and his writers certainly look widely for the themes of their musicals. The Bible gave them "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"and "Jesus Christ Superstar". Eva Peron inspired "Evita". Thomas the Tank Engine channelled "Starlight Express".

"Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" – a collection of whimsical verses sent by the austere poet T S Eliot to his godchildren – seems on first sight a somewhat unlikely source for a Lloyd Webber musical. Trevor Nunn found it hard to weld a disparate collection of lyrics into something resembling a theme, particularly as there is no dialogue, and minimal plot (conditions imposed by the Eliot estate), and Eliot's words, though whimsical, are, by and large, neither populist nor easy to follow.

Nunn recalls that Valerie Eliot helped by finding an unpublished poem about Grizabella, the Glamour Cat. But they were still missing a signature song – one that the audience might remember, and hum on their way out. Overnight, Webber wrote a tune, and Nunn spent a week-end writing and rewriting what became one of the most successful song lyrics in history – "Memory" – the only song in the show which owes only a little to Eliot, and is loosely based on an Eliot poem "Rhapsody on a Windy Night".

The rest is history. 8,000 performances in London. 7,000 on Broadway.

The show is about spectacle and movement. To give a sense of the scale of the spectacle here are some statistics. 1700 metres of lycra and 2000 metres of faux fur were used in the costumes. 3000 pots of make-up. 70 body microphones. 1500 performers auditioned, resulting in a cast of 800. The huge number of young singers and dancers were rehersed in small groups of 25 and then combined. What could have been a logistical nightmare functioned brilliantly.

The Convention Centre was configured for theatre in the round, with a huge u-shaped area between the audience and a large raised island with a revolving turntable for lead performers and orchestra. Down the steps of the auditorium came the singers and dancers, pouring into the centre. I have never seen such a huge cast.

Full marks to Tim O'Connor and Harvest Rain for sheer courage and hard work. Full marks to the young singers and dancers for giving it their all.

Such plot as there is centres on a dance – the Jellicle Ball, where one cat is chosen by the leader, Old Deuteronomy, to be re-born. We meet individual cats, who, in song and dance, express their very different personalities.

To me stand-outs were the mischievous cat burglars Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Callan Warner and Hannah Crowther) who sang well and cartwheeled across the stage, Patrick Oxley who commanded the stage as Old Deuteronomy, Steven Tandy who brought to life the ancient theatre cat, Gus, and, of course Marina Prior as Grizabella, in tattered grey lace and in despair. Once again "Memory", though played at a faster tempo than we are used to, was the song which stole the show.

Choreography was superb, the band did well, and the lead singers, overall, were excellent.

Was it flaw-less? Well, no. Some of the radio microphones occasionally malfunctioned, leaving singers stranded for a moment or two. During the interval, we could hear electric drills under the turntable, fixing mysterious faults. At a key moment, a trumpet decided not to co-operate.

But, in the end, none of that mattered. What we will remember about this performance will be spectacle and movement, and the sight of hundreds of young performers having the time of their lives.
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Why? Movement and spectacle
When: 4th -6th July
Where: Brisbane Convention Centre
Cost: $70 - $120
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