Pamplin Media Group – Broadway in Portland’s ‘Cats’: They Do What They Want

A Grizabella de Camas stars in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wildly popular musical as she returns to Portland.

In the 1930s, the very serious British-American poet TS Eliot took up a bit of doggerel for someone else’s children as a break from writing about the meaning of life.

To hell with Little Gidding: here’s one about a stranded old theater cat named Gus. Oh, and another on a rake, Bustopher Jones, and another on a railroad orange tabby, Skimbleshanks. Eliot’s ditties were published in 1940 as “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” with cute drawings, but they were originally amusing to fill in his letters to his godchildren.

When Andrew Lloyd Webber created his musical version of “Cats” in 1981, he added characters that weren’t part of Eliot’s cut. Who would have known that Grizabella, star of the series, the former glamorous cat who eventually goes viral, was originally left in Eliot’s drafts folder, unused?

The big lie of 2019 is that “Cats,” the CGI-assisted movie, was no better than a pile of kitty litter. Online critics hated it and it wasted a lot of money, but the film version at least made it easier to focus on the musical’s strengths: the cat-like choreography, the grime of post- Victorian where the gas-lamps sputter, and the paper-thin plot, in which the Jellicle cats gather to see which of them will be voted off the island for a strange cat after death, the Heaviside Layer. Plus, the movie has a boat, a hot air balloon, and some magic from Idris Elba. The interaction of Eliot’s Uber driver stereotype cast of England’s vision didn’t make much of a splash, but there are some intensely emo moments that can be recreated at home with your own pets. company.

COURTESY PHOTO: BROADWAY IN PORTLAND/MATTHEW MURPHY - Old Deuteronomy, the cat that chooses which cat goes to the Heaviside layer.

Post-digital layer

Cats play in Portland June 21-26 at Keller Auditorium. The stage spectacle can’t match the digital splendor of these airbrushed kittens, whose bright eyes and smiles (with the exception of Dame Judy Dench) are mesmerizing, but live theater has its perks. You know actors can do it in one take.

The lead singer playing Grizabella on this tour is near-native hero Tayler Harris, Camas’ kitty. During a recent week off, Harris was visiting family. She spoke to the Tribune about being the star cat, looking forward to bringing the show home to the beloved Keller Auditorium, where she saw “Wicked,” “Matilda” and “Hamilton.” The 27-year-old starts out as young Grizabella, then changes costume and makeup to become old Griz, the washed-up cabaret star who chases “the Tottenham Court Road” in cat-like self-pity and a matted fur coat. Harris gets to kick off the big song, “Memory,” that anthem of creativity, loss, and hope.

“I’m not the strongest dancer…I wish I was,” Harris said. “But I dress a little different to blend in with all the cool cats. Then I get changed a little bit quickly, and then I’m fine, and I’m pretty much sitting backstage.”

She adds with a chuckle, “I love being the glamorous little cat, the best kitty that sings ‘Memory’.”

All other cats should stand still and watch during this song.

“People come to see a show of a musical because of the lights, the costumes, and the incredible choreography. It was reworked by Andy Blankenbuehler (who choreographed ‘Hamilton’) but it still has so many elements and of original assets created by Gillian Lynne.”

COURTESY PHOTO: BROADWAY IN PORTLAND/MATTHEW MURPHY - Tayler Harris of Camas plays Grizabella who sings Memory in Cats, which plays in Portland June 21-26 at Keller Auditorium.

All alone in the spotlight

Audiences also come for this big number that sends them out of the theater buzzing with conflicting emotions, especially the classic line that all cats would say if they spoke English: “If you touch me, you’ll understand what happiness is. / Look, a new day has begun.”

Landing the role of Grizabella was special because it was her first audition for “Cats.”

Harris calls the 1989 direct-to-video version of Cats “the VHS movie”. Between encores, she scanned it and numerous YouTube clips, to see how others had sung the show’s biggest number, “Memory.”

COURTESY PHOTO: BROADWAY IN PORTLAND — Tayler Harris of Camas, Wash., is thrilled to perform in his hometown musical theater, the Portland Keller Auditorium, when Cats take place June 21-26.

“I wanted to know who else was playing Grizabella and what the song was like in their bodies, just so I could walk into the room and put my own spin on it.”

Harris places great emphasis on versions by Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige, as well as super-belter {obj:63324: Keri Rene Fuller}, who was the Griz on the tour just before Harris.

Don’t forget Jennifer Hudson from the 2019 film. “It was very inspiring to watch, especially as a black woman, and I’m the sixth black woman in 41 years to have had to play Grizabella,” she said with great pride. “Jennifer Hudson was the fifth. And now I’m the sixth.”

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For “Cats” tickets, see

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