Gilbert Sanchez: “Cats II—The Other Cats Musical”
Cats II—The Other Cats Musical was a hellzapoppin’, high-flying, low-aiming variety show that easily held its own against its more prestigious predecessor. While Andrew Lloyd Webber limited his inspiration to T.S. Eliot, this show’s creator, host and featured performer, Gilbert Sanchez, in the guise of his starry stage persona, Ms. Zilbert, took limitless inspiration from an entire world of art, celebrity: pop songs, Broadway, dance, fine art, spoken word, stand-up comedy and myriad other sources, all re-worked and re-imagined to celebrate, mock, honor, capture and comment on our feline brothers and sisters. He utilized a cast of near thousands (or as near to that as a raised stage in a small cabaret room in a gay bar near Times Square would allow).
Sanchez fashioned a kind-of “Feline Idol” in which various cat-people (usually cleverly named) vied to be chosen to ascend to the “heavyside layer,” immortalized in the original musical as a heavenly realm where cats are reborn. As a bonus in Cats II, audience members were invited to vote online for their favorite contestant after the performances finished. There was a rough-and-ready, come-what-may energy to the endeavor which, in less capable hands, might have ended up a mess, but the ingenuity, charm, satirical edge, wit and joy on display throughout rescued it from that fate in most instances. Ms. Zilbert was a winning, self-deprecating host and traffic controller. His numbers were also some of the brightest of the evening.
There were so many smart choices. For example, he re-wrote Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” with new and unrelated lyrics and made no mention of the real words, so that the sly joke of the original title would be gotten only by those who knew it. It was a most welcome wink of the eye from the singer. There were a few callbacks to Lloyd Webber’s warhorse, but the inventive song choices (ranging from Missy Elliot to the McGuire Sisters, to Alanis Morissette to Barry Manilow and Abba) were a constant delight. The at times arcane, at times obscene, wonderfully rhymed, consistently funny new lyrics for the songs were on a consistently high level. Most were supplied by the host but his husband, Ryan Mulgrew, had a couple of scene-stealing numbers—first as a kitten wishing he was part of his gay dads’ world of cruising, Fire Island, and freedom to the tune of “Part of Your World” (Alan Mencken, Howard Ashman) from The Little Mermaid). Mulgrew later returned as Meowryl Streep, flaunting her Oscars in an insane and inspired mash-up of Sondheim’s “The Witch’s Rap” and “Last Midnight” (from Into the Woods) with Abba’s “The Winner Takes It All” (Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson). His simple, expressive vocals along with his minimal make-up and maximum suave won the evening, quite literally in fact, as he was ultimately voted to be the chosen one. This turned out not to be the triumph it had at first seemed since the winner, in order to take the journey, had to be killed, a point emphasized by Ms. Zilbert wielding a broadsword, making explicit the gruesome denouement that remained implicit on Broadway.
Other stand-outs in the cast included Katy Richter, claiming the stage with Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” Jenni Connolly rocking the house with an Alanis Morissette medley of “Uninvited” and “You Oughta Know,” and music director Patrick Thompson, who in addition to proving his versatility with the variety of material presented, did a driving arrangement of “Your Song” (Elton John, Bernie Taupin) that made it seem fresh and new. There was a nod to New York performance art history with a special appearance by Village legend, Shelly Mars who proved in a monologue that she had lost none of her raw, blistering, sharp-tongued humor and energy with the passing years. I also loved an original by Sanchez called “I Don’t Like Your Dog.” Dancer Adrienne Gagnier was sensational and easily surpassed any choreography in the original with a couple of too brief cameos. Special mention should also be made of Terrell Spence’s terrific make-up for Ms. Zilbert and the entire cast.
I reviewed Gilbert Sanchez’s debut show in Brooklyn a few years ago and while I enjoyed that one very much, Cats II—The Other Cats Musical is on a much higher level, for both him and for Ms. Zilbert. I can only hope its success portends more visits to Manhattan for this rising star.
Presented at Red Eye, 355 W 41st St., NYC, October 23, 2023.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”