The film version of the musical Cats received some of the worst reviews in some time and has bombed at the box office. Are the performers on the now-and-forever tour based on the 2016 Broadway revival of the popular stage show feeling, er, catty?
“There’s something undefinable about the original show that [the filmmakers] may have just over-tweaked it too much,” says Timothy Gulan, who assumes multiple feline roles in the tour based on the Cats revival, coming to New Haven’s Shubert Theatre March 5-8. “But I thought they have made a good effort and art requires risk. Not everything is going to be a home run.”
Gulan, who grew up in Rocky Hill and now lives in Madison when he’s not working, plays Gus and Bustopher Jones in the tour. “One of the things that the stage show does well is the poetry that it’s all based on. It doesn’t have the same structure that a film or play has to have. If you try to impose a structure, it doesn’t work. It’s really not that complicated.”
Gulan thinks he knows why the stage show has resonated for decades. “It’s about redemption. On stage you have these cats of all different colors, shapes and sizes and they all get along and celebrate their differences. Wouldn’t it be nice if people could do that, too?”
No cat fights? “No cat fights.”
By the way, Gulan says the flop film has had no effect on the tour. In fact, business is booming. Meow.
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It seems you can’t swing a cat — or a critic — in Connecticut without hitting a production of a Dominique Morisseau play. Hartford Stage, TheaterWorks Hartford, Long Wharf Theatre and Westport Country Playhouse have all presented her works in just the last few years. But a first-rate little theater in New Haven — Collective Consciousness Theatre — tops them all by producing three of her plays in five years. The latest is Skeleton Crew, which will play March 5-22 at Erector Square, 319 Peck St., Building 6S, in New Haven.
“We were the first to produce her work in Connecticut,” says Dexter J. Singleton, the theater’s executive artistic director, who is staging the work. “I’ve known Dominique for many years before she became one of the nation’s hottest playwrights.”
Singleton started as an intern at Long Wharf Theatre before continuing as an actor, director and arts educator, later joining with some artist friends producing, presenting and touring shows, before officially forming the Collective Consciousness Theatre in 2007 as a nonprofit. Six years ago the group began producing plays at its studio space and word quickly spread of the quality of shows, including Stories of a New America and last season’s The Royale (which got a rave from Mayor Justin Elicker.)
“We love to have writers we introduce to Connecticut, black and brown playwrights mainly, female playwrights, and writers who have a strong message that connects to the New Haven community,” Singleton says. “Because we’re so small and operate on a shoe-string budget, there have been some people who think of us as a community theater, and we’re not that. We feel in the last six years we’ve established ourselves as one of the best professional small companies in the state — and one of the best in the country.”
His favorite things
TheaterWorks Hartford has slipped in an off-subscription show for March. Every Brilliant Thing, a play by Duncan Macmillan (1984, Lungs) and Jonny Donahoe, is described as “an interactive, life-affirming theatrical experience,” directed by Eric Ort. The 60-minute solo, in-the-round show that makes the audience part of the experience will play March 12-22.
“It’s about a guy who creates a list of things worth living for because his mom is dealing with depression,” says Chad Jennings, who stars in the Hartford production. “It’s also about how he works that into his family life and his own struggles with depression. It’s a short show but it should have plenty of laughs, maybe some tears. You can really share a part of yourself and have a conversation with the audience.
“I love the aspects of this show,” says Jennings, who also was featured in Wicked on Broadway and on tour and will be in South Pacific at Goodspeed Opera House starting in April. “This play — it’s not really a play though; it’s more of an event, a conversation — makes you feel you’re part of a community and that makes you feel better because you’re not alone. The theater becomes a gym for empathy, exercising sadness or happiness. You might feel you’re having the worst time in the world but the more you can find a community that says you’re not alone, the more it can be a help.”
From cad to king
The last time Nick Westrate played Connecticut he was the ultimate cad, the heartless lover, the #HimToo guy playing the title role in the Westport Country Playhouse production of Don Juan a few months back. This month, though, he’ll take on a much nobler role at Hartford Stage. He’ll be playing King George VI in The King’s Speech, David Seidler’s play which was the basis for the 2010 Oscar-winning film starring Colin Firth as the stuttering royal on the eve of World War II.
I ask Westrate if he ever had any similar linguistic challenges as an actor.
“I did play someone with a stutter before in a play directed by David Cromer called Tribes,” the actor says during a break in rehearsals. “Like my character in The King’s Speech, the stutter would exhibit itself at its worst when the stakes are heightened, when something incredibly emotional is happening.”
So how does one control a stutter on stage?
“It starts out as a technical thing,” Westrate says, “and like so many things in acting when there’s a technical element to it, you rehearse and rehearse and figure out where it’s most useful. The play is like a big piece of music so we’re figuring all that out now from an organic point of view. Sometimes in the script it’s very specific and sometimes the playwright lets the actor figure it out. Most of the time it’s the actor’s choice when to do it and how. So that’s both freeing — and terrifying.”
Westrate says he sometimes brings home his characters’ emotional states, and for a play such as Tribes, it can be a sad experience. But for the Hartford Stage play, it’s a happier transference of character from stage to real life. “I’m walking the streets of New York like I’m the king of [expletive] England,” he says, laughing.
The King’s Speech plays Hartford Stage from March 19 to April 19. Michael Wilson, the theater’s former artistic director, directs.
Have you heard …?
…Juwan Crawley, a Hartt School grad from Bridgeport, has the title role in the musical Atina, Evil Queen of the Galaxy, being developed by Alan Menken. The private workshop of the show that Menken first wrote in 1980 will be held in March. Meanwhile, Crawley continues to be the standby Genie in Broadway’s Aladdin.
…Jeanine Basinger, who founded the famous film program at Wesleyan University and has a great new book out, The Movie Musical!, will be in conversation with me as part of the Mark Twain House & Museum A Little Harmless Fun series on March 4 in Hartford. On March 19, I’ll also be talking with Michael Alago, who at 22 in the late ’70s became the A&R record executive who signed Metallica and went on to work with Tracy Chapman, the Misfits, Cyndi Lauper, White Zombie, Nina Simone and John Lydon (Johnny Rotten). Alago’s memoir, I Am Michael Alago: Breathing Music. Signing Metallica. Beating Death, is newly released.