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Meow and Forever: “Cats: The Jellicle Ball” reviewed

The new “Cats” carries the subhead “The Jellicle Ball,” and that colorful but confused version opened Thursday at the Perelman Performing Arts Center. The cute feline costumes with long whiskers and artfully torn leg warmers have been retired to the dumpster of the show’s original junkyard locale. Now, the cast of two dozen performers don Qween Jean’s extravagant diva outfits and Nikiya Mathis’ enormous Day-Glo wigs to compete in a ballroom competition. The program notes tell us that “cat” is slang for these gender-fluid contestants.

“Appropriate” is the dirtiest word in the arts today, and one might feel sorry for Lloyd Webber for having his material spayed in this way by directors Zhailon Levingston and Bill Rauch. In fact, the only thing that makes this “Cats” worth watching is the ballroom environment of high and low drag that has been dropped like a bottle of Pooph odor eliminator onto Lloyd Webber’s litter box of a musical.

I’ll get to “Memory” in a moment, but every other song in “Cats” is rinky-tink to the extreme. Only when William Waldrop’s orchestrations riff on the original score by imposing a bump, stomp and grind dance rhythm does this “Cats” spring alive to grow painted claws. The cast really knows how to wear clothes and strut, although Arturo Lyons and Omari Wiles’ choreography doesn’t do much more than let the dancers show off their incredible extension and flexibility. I would have liked more stripping and display of bare skin. Curiously, this “Cats” too often comes off as a PG-rated “Broadway Bares,” the exceptions being Baby’s slinkier-than-thou White Cat and Sydney James Harcourt’s hot-hot-hot Rum Tum Tugger, who’s more than ready for a Grindr hook-up.

Regarding the competitions between various street types (construction worker, school boy, etc.) and a couple of fashion labels, these contests are signaled by projections on the back wall of Rachel Hauck’s warehouse set and have next to nothing to do with Lloyd Webber’s songs. There’s a huge disconnect between what’s being choreographed and what’s being sung, the lyrics unintelligible due to Kai Harada’s shrill amplification.

The contests take place on a long runway that should be brimming with action. In the documentary “Paris Is Burning,” these venues team with people fighting to get their moment in the spotlight. Hauck’s runway, however, is way too wide and the show’s directors and choreographers often leave it half-empty, with more intriguing cat fights taking place in the pit that’s just beyond the stage perimeter.

Andre De Shields plays Old Deuteronomy, and to show his seniority among the voguers, he wears a wig snatched from the head of Sam Jaffe in “Lost Horizon” and walks down the runway with all the aplomb of this year’s two candidates for the next president of the United States.

In the role of Grizabella, “Tempress” Chastity Moore gets to sing “Memory” a lot. Has there ever been a song more reprised in a musical than this tear-jerker? Moore manages to out-emote the original old bag-lady cat, played by Betty Buckley, pushing the saccharine aria to dangerous glucose levels. Levingston and Rauch powder this profiterole by having Grizabella come back in Act 2 as her younger, glamorous self where she is courted by Teddy Wilson Jr.’s Sillabub, who now wears a crown of sunflowers, strews Grizabella’s path with glitter and sings “Memory” in a tear-stained falsetto.

This spectacle is almost as hilariously funny as the In Memoriam section, complete with vintage photos of New York City drag artists, that kicks off Act 2.