Film adaptations of stage musicals seem polarizing by their very nature, but few have garnered the sort of response that last year’s big-screen release of “Cats” received.
The New York Times called it “a surrealist nightmare that would rival Jodorowsky, that could baffle David Lynch, that would prompt even the dark god Cthulhu to emit an impressed eldritch shriek.” The Evening Standard said it was “nearly as obscene as ‘The Human Centipede.’” And The Financial Times called it “worryingly erotic.”
Yet Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” remains one of the longest-running and financially successful stage musicals of all time. A visual and immersive spectacle that was unlike any musical Broadway had seen before, “Cats” became a cultural phenomenon and created the megamusical trend of large-scale shows intended for global audiences.
Telling the story of a clan of cats called the Jellicles, the musical profiles various felines on the night that they will make the Jellicle choice and decide which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn. Love it or hate it, the traveling Broadway tour of “Cats” is coming to the Altria Theater on Feb. 4 for a five-day run.
Timothy Gulan, who plays Bustopher Jones and Gus in the touring show, says that part of the appeal of cats is that their facial expressions are mysterious, leading people to superimpose their own feelings onto their feline counterparts. The charm of the musical “Cats,” he says, is similar.
“In that way, it’s like we’re presenting this thing about cats, which is really about people,” Gulan says, reached by phone from Boston. “It’s about redemption. It’s about [how] we’re all flawed people.”
Noting that Eliot wrote the source material during the Great Depression, Gulan says that the fat cat Bustopher Jones is attractive to his fellow cats because of his wealth and largess. According to the show’s lyrics, Bustopher Jones belongs to eight or nine supper clubs.
“After an economic collapse of the world has happened, being fat is actually a good thing. That means you’re well-fed, you’re doing OK,” Gulan says. “The girl cats think he’s sexy because he’s fat, and he thinks he’s sexy because he’s fat.”
Gulan also portrays Gus, a once-famous actor who tells tales of his many exploits on the stage.
“He’s not doing well,” Gulan explains. “He’s old, decrepit. He has a palsy problem. He’s probably one of the most likeable cats in the show.”
Compared to other Broadway shows and tours he’s starred in, Gulan says this one is unique in that audience members often dress as characters from the show that aren’t always the lead roles.
“People have their favorite cats, and it’s not necessarily Grizabella or Old Deuteronomy,” he says. “They have ensemble cats that are their favorites, and they spend a lot of time and money on these costumes.”
As for his opinion on the movie adaptation, Gulan says he hasn’t seen it yet. Still, he says live theater always has an extra layer of potency over film.
“There’s nothing that can replace the immediate response of person-to-person contact,” he says. “You don’t get that in a movie. You just don’t.”
Noting that he could be a grandparent to some of his fellow cast members, Gulan says he identifies with Gus, the theater cat.
“It’s fun for me to actually be my age with this cast of kittens,” he says, noting that he has regaled his co-stars with tales of working alongside the likes of Carole King, Tony Curtis and Mel Brooks. “Me sort of getting to tell Gus’ old theater stories is fun, because … it’s what I do.”
Broadway in Richmond’s “Cats” plays Feb. 4-8 at the Altria Theater, 6 N. Laurel St. For information visit broadwayinrichmond.com.