Packemin Youth Productions have frolicked their way into 2017 with a lively production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats.

When the musical first opened in London’s West End in 1981, it took a while for audiences to warm to this feline frenzy. And it’s easy to see why — it’s a musical based on a collection of poems by T.S. Elliot, and therefore has no discernible plot line. This makes for some pretty difficult viewing, especially given the plethora of incredible, diverse and captivating new musicals on offer to theatregoers these days.

This production however, directed by Craig Stewart, is full of heart. The stage simply swarms with cats and kittens, and it’s impressive to see so much fur and face paint in one place. There is a lot of young talent up on that stage, and this musical, while not to everyone’s tastes, is a smart choice for showcasing that talent.

Most of these young superstars have been training for years, and will no doubt go on to have some kick-ass careers in the performing industry. A few cannot go unmentioned.

Chloe Malek is a particular standout as Bombalurina, absolutely nailing every single detail. Malek is utterly compelling, and shines out in this big ensemble.

Noah Gill Mullins displays some seriously impressive dance skills as Munkustrap, and has a good understanding of the text.

As The Rum Tum Tugger, Josh Ridge is suitably charismatic. His big voice has just the right amount of edge, blending rock and pop nicely.

As down-and-out kitty Grizabella, Harmony Lovegrove didn’t quite hit the mark. While her renditions of ‘Memory’ were fine, they lacked emotional connection and meaning. Perhaps it was opening night nerves, and hopefully she will continue to develop throughout the run.

Simon Pryce, of Wiggles fame, is the production’s guest professional. He makes a couple of appearances as Old Deuteronomy, the wise, old Jellicle leader, and stretches his comic legs as Bustopher Jones. Pryce’s velvety, resonant voice rings loud and clear, and his presence on stage seems somewhat reverent to the younger cast.

Set designer Neil Shotter opted for a more industrial look for the inside of Big Ben. Metal scaffolding hugs the extremes of the stage, leaving the centre clear for the big dance numbers. As previously mentioned, the cast is huge and the stage writhes with movement pretty much the entire time. What this productions needs more of is stillness. Cats are languid and lazy a lot of the time, and I wanted to see better use of the levels in the set. The highest points are used briefly for cameos and one-line solos, but that’s it. Looking up at any point and seeing a cat or two just lazing about and observing from on high would have helped conjure more of an atmosphere and a believability.

Lighting by James Wallis is bright and bubbly, with lots of vibrant colours. However the follow spot on opening night was regrettably laughable, finding its mark just when the singer had finished their bit, or sometimes not at all. Let’s hope this improves through the run.

The orchestra, lead by Co-Musical Directors Peter Hayward and Alex Ash, do well with a set of songs that are less than memorable. Playing from the back behind the set can be a problematic choice, but Sound Designer David Grigg enables their huge sound to be carried forward with ease and clarity. Grigg’s use of clanging bell sounds throughout, alongside the projection of a giant clock face (designed by Adam Ring), helped to remind us we were inside a clock tower.

Cats is a difficult one. Many are of the opinion that it should have stayed in the 80’s. The synthetic sound to the music, quirky poem-lyrics and distinct lack of storyline make it hard to connect with. But I can see the merits of a company such as Packemin deciding to mount a production of it. And they have done so with gusto. With each passing year, Packemin are solidifying themselves as Sydney’s premier youth pro-am company.

Playing at The Concourse, Chatswood until January 28.

Alana Kaye – Theatre Now