When native Baltimorean Andy Karl appears on stage at the Lyric Opera House tonight, his friends might not recognize him. That's because, as Rum Tum Tugger, the rock-and-roll feline in "Cats," he'll be well disguised in a cat suit and makeup.
But that's not unusual for Karl. When he was paying his dues on the local dinner theater circuit, he was also occasionally hidden under heavy makeup.
Consider, for instance, the time he played the beast in "Beauty and the Beast" at the Act Two Dinner Theatre, or his portrayal of the title character in a Toby's Youth Theatre production of "The Reluctant Dragon."
"I was a seven-and-a-half-foot British dragon. I could move the mouth and smoke came out, and his eyes lit up, and the kids went crazy over it," Karl said from "Cats' " stop in Cleveland.
Even the Towson High School role that led him to consider a career in the theater -- General Bullmoose in "Lil' Abner" -- found him wearing so much old-age makeup that his mother, Susan Weisman, initially mistook him for a teacher.
"Cats" is the second time Karl has come through town in a touring production. In 1996, he was an understudy in "The Who's Tommy" at the Mechanic Theatre, and on the final day of the run, he got a chance to play the lead.
"Tommy" was Karl's first touring show, and he says the musical, and particularly the rock-and-roll score, changed his life. "It was part of my generation, and I understood the music behind it. I started studying Pete Townshend. It was something I really had a passion for."
He has another chance to explore the genre as Rum Tum Tugger, whom he sees as part Mick Jagger, part Elvis Presley. "He's just this rock 'em, sock 'em rock-and-roll kitty cat who's so into himself and so irreverent," he said.
Karl is the son of Walter Cesewski, a kitchen refinisher, and Weisman, a teacher at Hereford Middle School. He dropped the surname Cesewski to make his name "easier to read on the playbill" and to honor his late great-grandfather, Andrew Karl, a Baltimore fireman.
The actor, who credits teachers and local directors with encouraging him, said one turning point came when he met with high school students after a performance of "Grease" at Towson University's Maryland Arts Festival in 1992. Karl, who studied voice at Towson and Essex Community College, told the students he hoped to become a voice teacher. But afterward, Todd Pearthree, the show's director, pulled him aside and suggested he had what it takes to act professionally. "My heart stopped, and I thought, maybe I'll take the advice," Karl recalled.
Though only 25, Karl has worked fairly steadily since moving to New York four years ago. At first, much of that work was in the trenches at low-paying dinner and regional theaters around the country. Touring as Rum Tum Tugger is his largest role to date, and he admitted the prospect of performing in his hometown gives this tall cat stage fright.
"I don't want to be nervous whatsoever in Baltimore, but it keeps eating away at me," he said. A videotape he recently saw of his first stage performance -- at age 16, as Aladdin at the White Marsh Dinner Theatre -- has only increased his trepidation. "When I go to Baltimore, I'm like, they remember me as Aladdin and it's the worst," he said. But then he added confidently, "I'm not Aladdin anymore."
Show times for "Cats" at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., are 7: 30 p.m. tonight through Friday, and 7 p.m. Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Thursday and Sunday. Tickets are $19-$49.50. Call 410-481-7328.
Dreams and 'Expectations'
This year, for the first time, both plays in AXIS Theatre's summer Other Voices series are by local writers. Kimberley Lynne's "Really Big Expectations" is a kind of science-fiction combo of Dickens' "Great Expectations," the movie "An Affair to Remember" and the quip that men are like buses -- miss one and another one will come along.
In the first act, 35-year-old Patsy Havisham (Joan Weber) -- named for Dickens' spinster, Miss Havisham -- has a series of one-night stands, each of which ends with her nightmare that her lover has been hit by a bus. The act's last paramour (Cameron Francis), however, is an old flame who has the creepy habit of simultaneously having the same dream as Patsy.
In the second act, set in a hospital, Patsy discovers the meaning of that old adage, "Be careful what you wish for," or in this case, what you dream.
The production, directed by Laura Hackman, is relatively amusing, and Lynne is a literate and clever writer. But for a play about immediacy -- Lynne's ultimate lesson is the importance of living in the present -- "Really Big Expectations" takes a little too long getting to the point.