'Cats: The Jellicle Ball' review — a purr-fectly revelatory reimagining of a classic musical

Read our review of Cats: The Jellicle Ball off Broadway, a reimagined revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's classic musical at the Perelman Performing Arts Center.

Kyle Turner
Kyle Turner

André De Shields’s career is inimitable and imposing, spanning over 50 years as an actor, choreographer, and director — and an Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award winner for his role as the original Hermes in Hadestown. And he’s openly been a “Black man who loves other men” since the late 1960s. It’s not hard to understand why a league of performers would vie for his approval.

There he sits at the judge’s table, watching one by one as the dancers, voguers, and dazzling stars of Cats: The Jellicle Ball try to impress De Shields’ Old Deuteronomy in one ballroom battle after the other. Old Deuteronomy stands as a mammoth figure radiating possibility in the feline world of the show while also glistening at the fringes of the stage, the actor’s persona amplified by the stellar cast’s exuberance.

This meta quality extends to much of the rest of the cast, full of legendary figures from the ballroom community and its history, featuring icons like Junior Labeija (a longtime member of the iconic House of Labeija and seen in the documentary Paris is Burning, here playing Gus, the theatre cat), Dudney Joseph Jr (doing double duty as Munkustrap of Ceremonies), Capital Kaos as the DJ, and a devastating “Tempress” Chastity Moore as Grizabella.

Cats: The Jellicle Ball is one of the best musicals, revival or otherwise, to be staged in New York, not only for the ingenuity, dramaturgical soundness, and pure joy of its reimagining, but because it grounds the notion of the “dance musical” in an expansive history of queer joy, full of potential for nine lives and beyond.

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Cats: The Jellicle Ball summary

Cats began as a 1939 book of poems by T.S. Eliot called Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. In 1977, Andrew Lloyd Webber made a concept musical from the poems, in which a group of Jellicle Cats compete to go to the Heavyside Layer, aka the afterlife. Its 1982 Broadway premiere became a feline-nomenon, becoming the fifth-longest-running Broadway musical of all time.

This revival takes place at a vogueing competition at a ballroom. Ballroom culture emerged from 20th-century drag pageants in New York, and balls became a particularly safe haven for gay, queer, and transgender people of color. At ballroom competitions, people competed with their houses — groups of found family members who adopted a common name — in various dance and fashion categories.

These contests turned everyday experiences for queer people into acts of performance, sometimes critiquing the ways they were expected to dress, act, and exist in the world outside the ballroom. Ball culture still exists today.

What to expect at Cats: The Jellicle Ball

This isn’t (and is) your house mother’s Cats. These cats swing their arms, swish their hands, sashay down the runway (designed by Rachel Hauck), snap their wrists, clack their fans, clap back at their vogueing competitors, powder their faces, kiki in the corner while watching the spectacle, fluidly move from ballet to vogueing, old way to new way, and take luxurious dips on the ballroom floor.

It is raucous entertainment, simple yet so effective — each song is connected to a different ballroom category, like “pretty boy realness” or “tag team”. Expect energy, emotion, and one of the best displays of how to transform a concept dance musical into an expression of queer life in all of its complexities.

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What audiences are saying about Cats: The Jellicle Ball

Cats: The Jellicle Ball has a 92% audience approval rating on the review aggregator Show-Score, with audiences praising the fresh take on the classic material.

  • “CATS ‘The Jellicle Ball’ was one of the most outstanding things I have EVER seen on stage. Olympic-level choreo. Brilliant framing though the queer ballroom scene. Authentic and joyful. I need to see this 20 more times.” - X user @cory_ep
  • “It’s been a day and I can’t stop thinking about how f---ing good Cats - The Jellicle Ball was[.] It is the prime example of how you both revere and reinvent a work. I will be back.” - X user @luxurytrash_
  • “CATS: THE JELLICLE BALL is a phenomenon.” - Rob Weinert-Kendt, editor-in-chief of American Theatre magazine, via X

Read more audience reviews of Cats: The Jellicle Ball on Show-Score.

Who should see Cats: The Jellicle Ball

  • Everyone.
  • Anyone who loves the original Cats will be deeply pleased at how well the revival both reinvigorates and honors the source material. The thrilling choreography (by Arturo Luons and Omri Wiles) also meshes surpsiingly well with Webber’s original score while deepening the story.
  • Anyone who hates the original Cats should see it for the pure exuberance of its performers and the enthralling experience of being with the audience, together creating a buzzing energy, with standouts like Baby (as an elegant Victoria), Emma Sofia (as a wry and no-nonsense Skimbleshanks), Nora Schell (as a bustastic Bustopher Jones, paying homage to Stonewall Uprising icon Stormé DeLarverie), Robert “Silk” Mason (as the very magical Mr. Mistoffelees), and Antwayn Hopper (as a very mischievous Macavity).
  • Anyone looking for a good show for Pride should see Cats: The Jellicle Ball, as it reflects and embodies Black and trans queer joy and magic: feline, fearless, faithful, and true.

Learn more about Cats: The Jellicle Ball

Cats: The Jellicle Ball is not only refreshing, but revelatory. It’s a musical that doesn’t sacrifice the integrity of its source material for the sake of a provocative new perspective, nor the voices of its creative team in favor of adoration for the original. It imbues the show with care, pathos, drama, starlight, and explosive jubilation. Cats: The Jellicle Ball is queen (and kween) of this and all other nights.

Learn more and get Cats: The Jellicle Ball tickets on New York Theatre Guide. Cats: The Jellicle Ball is at the Perelman Performing Arts Center through July 28.

Photo credit: Cats: The Jellicle Ball off Broadway. (Photos by Matthew Murphy)

Originally published on

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