Author's note: Prior to my full-time tenure at the Reader, I worked at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, and for Dennis Hitchcock, for 11 years. This was one of those rare interviews that didn't start with a handshake, but rather a hug.

For area theatre fans who have been waiting for the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse to produce Cats - who have been waiting for any local venue to tackle Andrew Lloyd Webber's wildly popular musical extravaganza - the news that the Rock Island dinner theatre would finally be doing so this spring (beginning on Friday, March 31) was likely greeted with excitement, along with a nagging question: "What the hell took so long?"

Circa '21 producer/director Dennis Hitchcock, though, wants it to be known that the delay hasn't been for lack of trying; Hitchcock has been considering a Circa '21 Cats, he says, since "before it opened in the world."

In 1981, Hitchcock - in addition to operating his "dinnertainment" venue - was also a theatre professor at Augustana College, and made his first acquaintance with Cats when he and a group of students took a school-sponsored to trip to London.

"One of the shows that I saw on my own - because there weren't enough tickets to get to the group - was a new show that a guy named Andrew Lloyd Webber was doing," Hitchcock says in tongue-in-cheek fashion, as Webber had already enjoyed enormous success with such musicals as Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita. Hitchcock attended, he says, "the second-to-last public preview" of Cats, even though the show's title and subject matter did give him paws. (Sorry. Last kitty joke. Promise.)

"First, I thought it was kind of a dumb idea," Hitchcock admits. "Just a show about cats, you know, with a bunch of music." But by the evening's end, the show - which sets poems from T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats to an Andrew Lloyd Webber score, and focuses on a ragtag group of tabbies eager to achieve feline immortality - had made Hitchcock one of the first of what would eventually be millions of Cats fans. He recalls, "I was really charmed by the show. It was a warm, charming, lovely piece, and I thought, 'Boy, this is a great show to do.'"

By this time, Circa '21 had been operating for more than four years, and Lloyd Webber's latest endeavor seemed like a perfect fit for Hitchcock's theatre. "Not really knowing much about it," he says, "I went out and asked someone in the lobby if the rights were gonna be available.

"And he laughed at me," Hitchcock reveals, also laughing.

"He said, 'Well, we think it's gonna run here a long time and it's also gonna run in New York, so maybe you'd better wait until you get home and then check with one of the leasing agents in a couple of years."

Those "couple of years," of course, turned into far more than a couple.

Opening on October 7, 1982, Cats overcame mixed reviews to become the biggest sensation in Broadway history. The show began running "now and forever" at the Winter Garden Theatre, received seven Tony Awards, and by its closing-night on September 10, 2000, Cats' Broadway incarnation - a lavish spectacle that morphed from the London production's more humble beginnings - had played 7,485 performances. The show has practically become synonymous with musical theatre; at all times, productions of the show are being performed somewhere in the world, and as Hitchcock states, even those who don't know Cats seem to know it. "Even if people haven't seen the show, I'm sure they've seen the visuals at some point. Between magazines, newspapers, television, hearing it on the radio."

During the 1990s, the rights for Cats became available for Equity (actors-union) houses and touring companies, but it was still years before the show was a viable option for Circa '21. (The venue is a professional theatre - compensating all of its artists - but not an Equity house.)

"About a year and a half ago," Hitchcock says, "we were able to get the rights," but he admits that - even though he had wanted the show for more than two decades - he was still hesitant about the challenge that Cats would inevitably be.

"I was afraid of the show," he admits, "because it's so big, and there are so many elements to it" - including a grandiose set, extensive costume and make-up necessities, and the inclusion of a live orchestra - "that most shows really don't have to worry about.

"And so," says Hitchcock, "after a couple of friends did it - at about four or five other theatres, I'd known people who'd done it - and in talking with them at length, exchanging e-mails, getting lists of things to do and things to not do, I said, 'Okay. It's time to take a shot at this.'"

Hitchcock's first step was to hire a director. "When deciding to do Cats," he says, "I knew that I, certainly, couldn't direct it. There's no way in the world. It requires a choreographer, a director, and ideally the same person, because the show is all dancing and singing. No lines whatsoever."

Because of the show's enormous technical challenges, he also was hoping to find someone with previous Cats experience. "I checked with a couple of other people who had done it," Hitchcock says, "and a friend of mine in Tennessee at the Cumberland County Playhouse recommended Stephanie Lang, who had done the show - she performed in it on Broadway, she had performed in the national tour for two years, and had directed four previous productions, including theirs." Hitchcock made an offer, Lang accepted, and the two began their task of bringing a Circa '21 Cats to life.

Auditions for the show took place both in New York, where Lang hails from, and locally, at a group audition held in January - one that was attended by performers from across the country. "We had one from Maryland, one from Pennsylvania, Louisville," Hitchcock lists. "But it's the kind of show that has appeal for performers because not a lot have done it yet. Especially dancers. Because not all the roles have to be brilliant singers. They have to be good dancers. So we saw a lot of people in New York that we probably wouldn't have seen if we were doing Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music again."

During the casting process, the decision was made to rent the show's elaborate wardrobe from Kansas City Costumes, which furnished the cat outfits for the St. Louis Municipal Theatre's Cats production, and the duty of designing Circa '21's Cats set and scenery went to Dawn Robyn Petrlik, "whose most recent project," Hitchcock states, "was doing all the new pieces for the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes show."

Petrlik's inspiration was to set the production in an abandoned theatre, which might surprise Circa '21 audiences expecting to see the show's signature junkyard on the Circa '21 stage. "Of course," says Hitchcock, "the junkyard is the way it was done on Broadway and most of the tours. It doesn't have to be done in a junkyard. It's been done lots of different ways around the world now - I think in Norway was the first time that it wasn't done in the traditional way. It was done on rooftops." He adds that a production at the Lincolnshire Marriott in Chicago was set in an abandoned amusement park, and in a recent production at the Timber Lake Playhouse in Mt. Carroll, "they set it in a 1945, bombed-out building, which I found really interesting."

Hitchcock laughs. "Jerome Guthrie said, 'There are 20 ways to play Hamlet. All of them right.'"

Although different from Cats' junkyard setting, Circa '21's abandoned-theatre locale still provides the performers with numerous levels and stage pieces on which to dance, crawl, and pounce, and there is one element of the design that has not been changed - its grand scale. Regarding Circa '21's Cats set, Hitchcock says, "Everything is over-sized. Everything is higher and wider and taller" than a show featuring human characters would be, "so it will look too big for the performers if they were people, but not too big for them as cats."

(Among the production's over-sized set pieces, Hitchcock reveals, is "a large chandelier that has fallen on stage right." Um ... a chandelier? In a nod, perhaps, to another Lloyd Webber musical that audiences have been awaiting from Circa '21? Hitchcock throws his hands in the air and laughs, saying, "Hey, I don't know!")

Audiences will notice another set element perhaps unfamiliar from previous productions of Cats: an on-stage orchestra, consisting, lists Hitchcock, of "three keyboards, two reeds, a guitar/bass, and percussion. The most we've ever had." Although Circa '21's stage space does, in fact, feature an orchestra pit - rarely used since 1995 - Hitchcock says, "The director and designer and I all liked that idea, of them being incorporated within the set.

"If you use the orchestra pit ... first of all, I think they would've been too crowded. I don't think we could have gotten everybody in there. But secondly, it would have taken away from the space available for the dancers. And it's a large cast. At times there are 18 people dancing at once. And with our stage, that's really pushing the physical limits of the space to work with. But everybody liked the idea of them being on stage. They'll be on an eight-foot platform which is encompassed, of course, within the design."

After a 16-day rehearsal process that began on March 13, Circa '21's Cats will finally debut before preview audiences on March 29 and 30, beginning the musical's run through June 17 - or, as the production's publicity states, "now, but not forever." (A clever line, the acknowledgment for which Hitchcock cedes to others. "I'd like to take credit for it, but I can't. The first we saw it was at a friend's theatre in Pennsylvania. I don't know if they came up with it or not, but that's who we stole it from," he says with a laugh.)

A long journey from 1981 to 2006, but one that, Hitchcock expects, will have enormous payoff for audiences. "It's the kind of show that generates a lot of excitement," he says, "because even though it's been around a long time, a lot of people still don't know exactly what it is. So we're finding that exciting, that we can bring something that's been around for 24 years that's still gonna be new for many, many people."

For reservations to Cats, call (309)786-7733 extension 2.

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