Since the beginning of our collective Covid-19 nightmare, so many industries have struggled to stay afloat, perhaps none more than live theatre. After all, a big part of what makes taking in a show so special is the communal aspect of the experience.

There’s something therapeutic about sitting down with a bunch of strangers, listening to an overture and instantly being transported. How transported can one possibly feel, though, when just being in a crowd is cause for alarm?

Pandemics and live events simply do not mix. Thankfully, we seem to be easing our way out of the worst of it (touch wood), and as restrictions lift, Montrealers are slowly start trying to resume normal activities.

Are we really ready, then, to return to theatres? To sit amongst one another for over two hours and forget our problems? And crucially, are there any theatrical characters even capable of both reassuring and dazzling us?

Apparently, Jellicles can and Jellicles do. That’s right kiddies: CATS, the fourth longest-running musical in Broadway history is on tour and in Montreal this week, heralding a return to our habit of regularly playing host to popular Broadway shows.

Remember when Come From Away stopped by in 2019? Or The Book or Mormon in 2017? Remember how nice it was when we could expect the latest hit show from the Great White Way to swing by for a visit? Well, like a friendly tabby rubbing its nose against your elbow, this classic is back to remind us everything will be alright, and frankly, it’s not a moment too soon.

On the one hand, CATS is musical theatre comfort food in more ways than one. The show has a playful and varied score by none other than Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, with arguably one of the best musical theatre ballads ever as its crown jewel. It is also, of course, bursting at the seams with inventive choreography.

For this tour, the work of the late, great Gillian Lynne has been reimagined by Andy Blankenbuehler, meaning those who have seen CATS before can look forward to some slightly different moves this time around. There’s just something innately fun about watching dancers transform into felines right before your eyes, using little more than unitards, legwarmers, makeup and artistic expression.

For many, CATS has been a gateway drug to the magic of theatre and power of dance, so those experiencing it for the first time are sure to come away inspired. The show has a free-flowing narrative structure, having been based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, and as such demands little more from those in attendance than a willingness to surrender to its unique tone. Bottom line, audiences of all ages tend to get a kick out of this one.

On the other hand, though, there can be no denying that the public’s love for the material has been seriously tested by the lingering stench of the 2019 film adaptation. It’s difficult to think of a recent movie musical more universally loathed by the masses (sorry, Dear Evan Hansen).

Instead of taking its cues from the stylized costume designs that first took the world by storm in 1981, CATS the movie tried to go literal and use visual effects to transform the likes of Dame Judi Dench, James Corden, Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson into bizarre human/animal hybrid creatures. The end results were both laughable and disturbing.

The picture struggled to make its release date and then, after being rightly criticized for having shoddy CGI, sent out a modified cut with corrections days later. It was truly an unprecedented fiasco, and yet, it must still be said that director Tom Hooper was fighting a losing battle from the get-go.

CATS is one of those “out-there” concepts whose success depends entirely on the sensation of witnessing it live. People acting like cats up on a screen is not the same as people acting like cats around you in a theatre.

The suspension of disbelief is far greater when you know you’re being told a story in person and can feel the energy it creates. It also helps that at least in person, there can be no terrifying CGI blunders to take you out of the moment.

So all things considered, this tour is really serving two purposes. It will hopefully erase the flop film adaptation from our collective consciousness by reminding us what CATS is really all about, while also inviting us to return to our seats, so we can remember just how healing and joyful live theatre can be.

And it’s been a long time coming, considering this show was originally slated to entertain Montrealers in March 2020, only to be rescheduled for August 2020 and then delayed for an additional 18 months.

It’s a safe bet the energy from the audiences this week will rival that of the performers on stage, and why shouldn’t it? We’re overdue for some communal celebrating. Whatever new challenges may come in the weeks or months ahead, it’s definitely high time for the memory of brighter days to live again.

CATS runs at Salle Wilfred-Pelletier from March 8th to the 13th. Visit Evenko.ca or catsthemusical.com for ticket information

Given that it’s one of Modercai Richler’s most famous novels and a successful film starring Richard Dreyfuss, perhaps it’s not surprising that there have already been two attempts to mount a musical production of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. 

There have even been rumours of Broadway producers wanting to mount their own production. But it seems far more fitting that the latest musical adaption of an eager young Jewish entrepreneur from St-Urbain Street debuts in Montreal.

The expectations have been extremely high for this production. Critics across the country have been questioning whether Duddy is finally ready to sing, and whether this production will ever end up in New York. With the prestige of having music by Academy and Grammy award winner Alan Menken, and being directed by Austin Pendleton, it’s doubtful this latest musical adaptation will fizzle into oblivion.

Duddy Kravitz 2

The music is, without a doubt, the strongest aspect of the show. The story has been changed in certain ways that might bother die-hard fans of the novel. The songs meanwhile are guaranteed to please any musical theater lover. A Man Without Land/Leaving St-Urbain Street, Art and Commerce and The Final Hustle are all musical numbers on par with any great musical.

Sometimes it felt like the actors are just going through the motions. But, as Duddy Kravitz, Ken James Stewart gave an impassioned performance. His Duddy is more fiery and ambitious than the blundering hustler Richler wrote in his novel.

But with the tone of this production, that choice makes sense. Having a character be a miserable lout then burst into joyous song wouldn’t fit. The show definitely prefers a witty tone to a serious one, with most of the zingy one-liners falling on George Masswohl, who plays Duddy’s father Max.

In terms of singing, it’s Stewart’s co-stars that steal the show; Adrian Marchuk as Lenny and Marie-Pierre De Brienne as Yvette have the strongest voices in the cast. De Brienne shows her own star potential with numbers like Welcome Home.

If the production does become successful, it would be great to see more money be put into set design, as the current sets seem rather lackluster. So will this production ever end up in the city that never sleeps? It’s likely the show will continue a successful Segal Centre run if for nothing else than the sentimentality of having such a popular Montreal story brought to the stage. And while Duddy definitely can sing, its future success will depend on whether non-Montreal audiences connects to the show in the same way.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz: The Musical plays at The Segal Centre until July 5th

* photos by Maxime Côté