By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
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."
"Arabella, now step prep and step," Lewis directed them at a recent rehearsal.
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."
Ria Mills, a 30-year-old Oklahoma City resident who began dancing with Lewis in high school, is playing "Exotica" and makes the 234-mile drive on Saturdays.
Kansas City vocalists Nathan Sullins and Sara Sneed have come to rehearsals in Pittsburg numerous times, and Lewis has traveled to Kansas City to work with them on blocking.
Jenna Garretson, 17, of Carl Junction, was 10 when she first played Magical Mr. Mistoffelees. With this performance, she'll add to the role a complicated solo number on the lyra Ñ an aerial hoop that's extremely challenging. Off stage, she holds down two jobs and maintains an A/B average at school, but has a passion for performing that makes the extra work worth it, she said.
Narrating the show is Munkustrap, the tribal leader, played by local performer Brock Goben, who must dance individually and with a partner while singing. Another Southeast Kansas performer, Seth Hartley, who plays Skimbelshanks, faces the same challenge.
"It's worth all the hard work and the drive," said one of the show's youngest dancers, Sarah Williams, 9, of Neosho. "It gives me a chance to move and a chance to express myself through dance, and to be with others who like the same thing. It's all worth it."
The ballet's version will differ slightly from the Broadway version in that it comes with a bonus: Weber had cut from his original show a 6-minute long Italian aria, but audiences in Pittsburg will get to see and hear it.
"Since we had opera in our version, we put it back in," Lewis said. "The only place it's ever been heard was in London."
The translation to English will appear in the printed program.
Want to go?
"Cats" will be performed at 8 p.m. today and Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets can be purchased online at www.memorialauditorium.org, at the box office at 503 N. Pine or by calling 620-231-7827 during business hours, or at the door prior to the show.
Tickets are $20 for VIP seating, $18 for reserved floor and balcony and $10 for select balcony. For every ticket sold, the ballet will donate $1 to Children's Miracle Network Hospitals.