We are in Glen Echo Park, in Maryland, where the cozy Adventure Theatre MTC draws families as comfortably as Davis draws feline stripes. The cartoonist has popped into town here in suburban Washington to help pull together the production just days before first curtain. (“Garfield: The Musical With Cattitude” gets its world premiere today, and runs through Aug. 23.) As he admires the swiveling set design, and then watches the actors run their lines, the artist looks utterly in his element. Perhaps that’s because he was involved in theater before Garfield was even in a glint in his eye, let alone one mid-’70s weekend’s sudden inspiration from his brush.
“I got into community theater before I got syndicated. I did high-school productions for four years,” Davis says of his early days in Indiana, noting that his prep drama teacher had taught James Dean there at Fairmount High, near Muncie, and was forever looking for the next such meteoric star.
The theater bug never really left Davis, who was bitten again after his college years at Ball State with classmate David Letterman. “About 1970, I did community theater for five or six years,” Davis says. “I did direction, set design. I painted a lot of sets. I did costuming.” Young Jim relished it all.
At the end of that community-theater run, though, syndication — in the form of a large, lasagna-loving cat — moved into his life. And “Garfield,” of course, quickly became a booming commercial enterprise, too, dominating the bestseller lists and spawning an armada of tchotchkes. Davis had a comic strip and a company to run, and so theater was left waiting in the wings.
The desire to do a Garfield musical, though, remained — “It was on my bucket list,” says Davis, now 69. And so he said “yes” in recent years to trying to mount a national touring production. Which was precisely why Davis said “no” the first time that Adventure Theatre’s producing artistic director came calling.
“A couple of years ago, he got in touch,” Davis says of the theater’s Michael J. Bobbitt. “I said no because I had done the book on a [would-be] Broadway or off-Broadway production. We had great music and a great book. But the company was under-capitalized.”
As Davis’s plans for a national production were scuttled, Bobbitt persevered, trying again to persuade the cartoonist to bring his purring creativity to Washington.
“D.C. is unique among other areas in that there are so many theaters that do family-friendly programming, and it has several theaters [that] sole-produce plays for children, so I am always on the prowl for exciting titles,” says Bobbitt, who grew up near Howard University and who has taught theater and dance at Howard, Catholic University, George Washington University and Montgomery College.
Adventure Theatre has adapted comic-strip characters before, successfully mounting a 2013 production based on Lincoln Peirce’s popular feature “Big Nate.” “I reached out to Lincoln,” Bobbitt says, because “my son had a small library of ‘Big Nate’ books,” and the father had become a fan. That experience only stoked the director’s desire to stage Davis’s comic menagerie.
“Garfield is certainly an exciting title, and with the past TV show and the movies, I just felt it could be great for the stage,” Bobbitt says. “We always attempt to have our shows entertain kids and their parents, and no other animated character does this more than Garfield.”
But landing Davis remained difficult. “As an artist, I’ve gotten used to rejection, so while disappointed, I wasn’t deterred” after the first rejection, says Bobbitt, who studied for a time at the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Washington Ballet. “Usually, if I get a response from underlying rights-holders, I will reach out to them again in a few months.”
But, “The second time he said ‘no,’ I was a little more disappointed — mostly because we had a well-known playwright attached to the project,” Bobbitt says. So, “When he finally said yes, I was elated, but intimidated, because we had chosen to work on the script together.
“I was going to be writing a script with Jim Davis. I still have a hard time believing it.”
“We sent it back and forth for, I’d say, nine months,” Davis says. “He would say, ‘That’s a lot of Garfield, and a little theater.’ And I then I’d say, ‘That’s a lot of theater and a little Garfield.’ But the book really is true to the rhythms, and it has the action that’s good for theater.”
“It was a great collaboration,” Bobbitt says. “No ego at all. Every time we made adjustments, it just got better.”
“It’s just a classic, simple story,” Davis says of the creative result. “Garfield has a birthday and he’s waiting for a marching band [to celebrate]. And even worse, it’s on a Monday. So we follow this adventure as [the disappointed] Garfield runs away from home. [Ultimately] he realizes: ‘Wait a minute — it’s not so bad at home.’
“It’s a fun adventure, and we put a lot of gags in it.”
Davis, ever the theater lover, embraced other facets of the production, as well. “Jim really wanted to be a part of the design process,” Bobbitt says. “We were given a brand guide, and the designers had to stick to the brand. We sent him sketches for approval, and he was always responsive and positive, especially with the costume designer,” Kendra Rai.
“He was not able to participate in the casting process, but the script was so specific that we knew exactly what we wanted,” continues Bobbitt, who was teaming with director Nick Olcott, with John L. Cornelius II providing music and lyrics.
On a recent weeknight, as the cast does a run-through, Davis and Bobbitt laugh as Garfield and his pining love-interest Arlene evade the authorities. As the titular feline, lanky star Evan Casey moves quickly through a dance number, bobbing and weaving around Emily Zickler’s Arlene, and the lyrical gags land. Davis leans over to Bobbitt and me and wryly notes the true source of the situational humor: “Sexual tension.”
Then, during a break in the action, the cartoonist springs up and moves across the room to share his admiration for the set-design models. In his hands is yet more evidence that Davis embraces most every facet of theatrical life.
“This is what we do anyway in the comic strip: We cast it, we do set design, we write the script, we direct,” Davis says. “Beetle Bailey” creator Mort Walker “always likened what we do as cartoonists to doing a play. And we get to draw it.”
Again smiling, Davis sits back down, returning to his creative catbird seat. “Although this all got started with the strip, I’m more at home working around the stage,” he says. “I’ve always just loved it.”
“Garfield: The Musical With Cattitude” runs through Aug. 23 at Adventure Theatre/Musical Theatre Center. For program and ticket details, visit the Adventure Theatre site.