John Lithgow feels perfectly comfortable in women’s clothing. Over the course of his 40 years on stage and screen, Lithgow has done his fair share of acting in drag. “That’s one of my various stocks in trade,” Lithgow says. “In ‘Raising Cain’ I was in drag in order to scare people; in ‘The World According To Garp’ I was intent on making people cry, it was such a sweet character; and in ‘Carnival of the Animals,’ it’s flat-out farce. If people don’t laugh I’ll be deeply embarrassed.”
Lithgow has performed his narration for Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet “Carnival of the Animals” more than 20 times since its 2003 premiere with the New York City Ballet, the latest being this weekend’s performances with the Pennsylvania Ballet. He has yet to be embarrassed when he enters as Mabel Buntz, the school nurse and “scourge of each virus and germ,” who is transformed into an elephant in the dreams of the story’s young hero.
“I came up with the notion of a little boy running away from a field trip as a practical joke that goes awry,” says Lithgow, who was invited to create the story by Wheeldon, who had choreographed “Sweet Smell of Success,” the actor’s first Broadway musical. “He ends up being locked in a natural history museum overnight and dreams that everybody in his community is an animal. The boys on the wrestling team are the jackasses, the girls in the hallway are the twittering birds in the aviary, his piano teacher is the baboon.”
Despite his vast experience in a wide range of performing arts, “Carnival of the Animals” marked Lithgow’s first experience with ballet. “It was really a very exciting and brand new work experience,” he says. “I have vast admiration for ballet dancers, having experienced the rigor of their lives and work. They work so quickly and they do such daring things in no time at all.”
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Best known for his roles on TV shows like “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “Dexter” and movies ranging from “Terms of Endearment” to “Harry and the Hendersons,” Lithgow has been writing, recording, and performing stories and music for children since the late 1990s.
“I’m in the business of suspending disbelief,” Lithgow says. “You never completely suspend an adult audience’s disbelief, but you can totally suspend a child’s disbelief. It’s a wonderful thing to take them to a different place, to a magical world. I love entertaining children.”