Stealthy and steady, ‘Cats’ and Cirque captivate Philly

Two massively popular performances are dazzling Philadelphia audiences this month: one, a classic Broadway evergreen; the other, an icy acrobatic adaptation.

“Cats,” the record-breaking blockbuster by Andrew Lloyd Webber, was the longest-running musical on Broadway when it ended in 2006. (“Phantom of the Opera” broke that record in 2018.)

For the first time in 20 years, the singing felines are taking the stage in Philly, through June 30 at the Forrest Theatre.

For out cast member Dan Hoy, who plays Munkustrap, appearing in the touring revival of “Cats” is a dream come true.

“When I was a kid, I had a VHS copy of ‘Cats.’ I watched that tape so many times that I broke it. I wore it out. I had to run out and buy a DVD copy of it after that,” said the performer. “It was a childhood fascination of mine and one of the reasons I got into musical theater in the first place.”

Hoy said the current incarnation of the classic has everything fans loved about the original, with some modern tweaks.

“The new choreography is by Andy Blankenbuehler, who you might know from a little show called ‘Hamilton.’ It’s definitely all fresh. It’s new. It’s exciting. It speaks more to a 2019 audience.

“That said, there is a lot of choreography and material in ‘Cats’ that, removing it from the show, would make it lose its iconic nature,” Hoy added. “So people who have loved ‘Cats’ and saw it in its original form, you’re still going to get those iconic moments you saw in the original productions. But, for the most part, the choreography has been updated by Andy.”

Hoy said connecting with fans of the show thrills him. As a fan himself, he can relate.

“My favorite part of this entire tour is getting to go to the stage door after the show and meeting the people who remember seeing the show when they were a kid who are now bringing their kids to experience this for the first time,” he said. “It’s crazy to think how much this show means to a lot of people. It was something that I wasn’t expecting.

“There is truly not another piece like ‘Cats.’”

Meanwhile, further downtown, a classic showstopper of a different genre also is offering a new spin.

The internationally acclaimed Cirque du Soleil has added a gem to its many varied incarnations with “Crystal” — the first Cirque to feature ice-skating — through June 23 at Wells Fargo Center. 

Out cast members Shawn Sawyer and Scott Smith were competitive figure-skaters before they signed on to Cirque. Both said they were intrigued by the size and scope of “Crystal.”

“[Cirque du Soleil] had never tackled the element of ice before,” Sawyer noted. “When I heard that the biggest entertainment company in the world was going to do an ice circus, I knew that I had to be part of this adventure. I’ve dabbled with a couple of different companies but never a company of this stature. I jumped on the project.”

For Smith, this opportunity also marks a departure.

“I was skating on cruise ships before, so that was a very small ice rink in an intimate setting, which was fun, but it’s nice to be performing in arenas,” he said. “This show forces you to look out to the whole arena and perform to a large crowd again.”

Sawyer added that such a large-scale production is more of a mental challenge than a physical one.

“The hard thing for me to do was to stop thinking of myself as an athlete and start thinking of myself as an artist. That was more difficult than I thought. Coming from the competitive skating world, I was very focused on my own skills. But in reality, when you are part of a cast sharing the ice with 43 other artists, you have to have more of an open mind of what we can bring as a group and not just as individuals.”

The reward is being part of something unique, said Sawyer: “Crystal” is unlike any other ice show making the rounds in the United States.

“Cirque is known for pushing their own envelope and boundaries. They’ve done it for years and years. That’s why they are the number-one entertainment company right now.” 

 

Cirque du Soleil’s “Crystal” runs through June 23 at Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St. For more information, visit cirquedusoleil.com/crystal. Broadway Philadelphia presents “Cats” through June 30 at Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut St. For more information, visit catsthemusical.