The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Lifestyles

April 19, 2013

Kinetic kittens: Dancers go extra mile, travel extra miles for 'Cats'

JOPLIN, Mo. — Kaye Lewis had five weeks to turn 52 people into cats and a bare stage into a junkyard.

Like any good director, she surrounded herself with experts who could help her get the job done. Brandi Graeber, a makeup artist from Carthage, came to Memorial Auditorium, where the production opens tonight, and spent a day training groups of Lewis' Midwest Regional Ballet dancers how to apply whiskers and face paint.

Gretchen Long, a Carl Junction attorney, began working on costumes, which are elaborate.

Bill Hall from Kansas City's American Opera Studio began training voices.

Jason Huffman, the auditorium's technical director, and Austin Cartwright, a theatrical master carpenter, began looking for an old car and metal junk. They hit pay dirt with dancer Makayla Draeger's dad, Scott, who located the perfect '65 Volkswagen.

Then the dancers began driving to Pittsburg from as far away as Columbus, Neosho and Oklahoma City for nightly rehearsals after work, school and other obligations.

"It's total dedication," Lewis said. "You have to have it to be with a show of this magnitude."

Magnitude is an apt description. There are 20 dance numbers in the show, and many are at least 10 minutes long. With a running time of two hours, these are cats that rarely stop moving.

"Arch, now candy cane."

"Obliques."

"Arabella, now step prep and step," Lewis directed them at a recent rehearsal.

Offbeat offerings

Lewis has headed up Midwest Regional Ballet since founding it 1999. The company is known for Christmastime performances of "The Nutcracker," for aerial work and for original offbeat productions such as "The Nightmare Before Christmas," based on Tim Burton's animated film.

Her dancers have performed the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical "Cats" in Pittsburg once before, in 2007. It deserves repeating, they said: It's the second longest-running show on Broadway.

Based on poet T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," the story centers on a tribe of cats called the Jellicles and a decision they must make one night as to which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and then come back to a new life. It has racked up numerous awards since opening in 1981 in London's West End and on Broadway in 1982.

Unlike many noted musicals, however, the show is told completely through music, with almost no spoken dialogue. Heavy on dance, it only made sense for Midwest Regional Ballet to take it on, Lewis said. But it's demanding.

"The dancing version is a lot more vigorous than in the Broadway show," Lewis said. "They bring their homework with them. They're dancing 20 hours a week. Their parents have to drive them and stay here. It's a commitment."

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