Think you’ve seen some halls decked for the holidays? You haven’t really seen major-league decking unless you’ve roamed the halls backstage at The King and I. Everywhere you turn right now is another sign shouting the season. A coat drive here, a food drive there, and everywhere a vestige of the Secret Santa game in which lovers of gift-giving can enroll.
But the sign transfixing my wandering eye this week as I patrolled the Beaumont hallways was headed “25 Cats of Christmas.” This giant paper rectangle, hanging on a wall near the men’s dressing rooms, is a project of the show’s invaluable stage-management team, particularly of B. Bales Karlin.
Bales, as he is universally known, told me that the feline sign is a kind of Advent calendar that unfolds from the beginning of December. “Advent calendars usually have doors that get opened once a day to reveal something,” he said. “We don’t have doors. We just add a new cat image to the sign every day.”
This holiday tradition began when Bales worked on LCT’s production of the J. T. Rogers play Blood and Gifts, in 2011, and continued with LCT’s Broadway revival the next year of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy.
Did the project spring forth because Bales is an impassioned cat lover? “Not really,” he confessed. “I used to say that I didn’t like cats; I liked pictures of cats. But then I adopted a black-and-white cat called Dahlia. Now, I have to say I love real cats, too, although I also love dogs, but it’s hard to have a dog in New York when you’re working on 8 shows a week.”
Aided by his Google-adept stage-management colleagues, Bales has discovered a multitude of cats with which to grace the calendar. The image selection is more thematic than literal. “It isn’t just cat cats,” he said. “One year, we put up EarthaKitt as the Catwoman: she’ll probably make an appearance this year as well.”
The only “King and I” cast member who has made this year’s kitty cut is ensemble member Julius Sermonia. Quoth Bales: “Julius did a production of Cats in which he played Mr. Mistoffelees” – Magical Mr. Mistoffelees, to use the full-bore moniker – “and we couldn’t resist taking advantage of that.”
I didn’t ask Bales whether one of the tech-savvy children in the King cast has created an Instagram account for the “25 Cats of Christmas.” (Call me a Luddite, but some things should be social-media-light.) I did ask him to ask him why projects like the Cats are crucial.
“It’s important in a long-run to keep people’s spirits up backstage,” he replied, “and part of that means having a lot of creative fun to get us through an 8-show week.” He added: “We’re a family backstage.”
By the way, the kitty you see accompanying this blog posting is, of course, Bales’s own Dahlia. (Known to friends and family as Dali.) She is, I think, the cat’s pajamas -- or, should I say, given her markings, the cat’s tuxedo.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.