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Cats' is back at the Civic Center Music Hall, and an Oklahoma City University grad is scratching it out onstage as a fun-loving feline



7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday
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Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker

Among the most popular musicals of all time, "Cats" got its start in London before making the move to Broadway in 1982. Based on T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," the show's lyrics are based directly on Eliot's verse and set to music by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

"'Cats' is a very different show. There's not a whole lot of plot. I think it's great for a Twitter-age America," said John Jacob Lee, an Oklahoma City University graduate who now stars as the railway cat Skimbleshanks. "It's a bunch of vignettes "? all these different poems set to music "? so there's not a whole lot that you have to follow. You can kind of sit back and enjoy the ride."

At 27 years, "Cats" has been touring longer than Lee has been alive.

"It's amazing to be part of a show that means so much to so many people," he said. "The best part about 'Cats' for me is knowing that I'm an ambassador for my art, because so many people that have never seen a live performance will come to see 'Cats' because it has such a history."

Of Skimbleshanks, Lee said that the orange tabby was his favorite character, even before he got the part.

"I like that he's a really fun-loving cat, but at the same time he's very methodical. Whereas the kittens are playful all the time and the adult cats are usually a little more stern, I get to ride between both worlds ... and I've got a killer number in Act 2," he said.

Lee grew up in a small town outside of Kansas City, Mo.

"It's like 'Waiting for Guffman,' he said. "The first three times I saw that movie, I didn't laugh because Excelsior Springs is a lot like Blaine. I didn't understand why it was funny, because that was my childhood. It all hit so close to home. I was like, 'Why is everybody laughing?'"

He found music theater at a young age. Inspired by Fred Astaire movies, Lee started dance lessons and began performing with a community theater when he was only 8 years old.

"By the time I was 12 or 13, I'd already done 10 shows," he said. "I just knew right away that that was what I was supposed to do for the rest of my life."

Lee attended high school in Liberty, Mo., and continued to perform as much as possible. He first heard about OCU while attending a national touring show that included an OCU grad.

"I said, 'If this kid's good enough to be in this, then he must have gotten some really good training at that school,'" Lee said. "So we looked into it, and I knew the minute I stepped on campus that that's where I was supposed to be."

He added that the things he learned while performing in college have kept him happy and healthy on the road, doing such a physically demanding show. He described the transition from student to working onstage professionally "like being shot out of a cannon."

"I was in New York auditioning for theaters all over the country and tours and didn't book anything for two months, and then within a week, I lined up a year-and-a-half 's worth of work," he said, adding that auditioning is especially terrifying during a recession.

"I remember working auditions at OCU and a mom and a son came up to me and said, 'We're thinking about checking out the school of business.' I said, 'If you're interested in business, then go do that. Don't do this unless you have to. It's too hard. If you can do something else, you should,'" Lee said. "They never asked me to help with auditions again."

Despite the challenges, he's happy doing what he loves "? something a lot of people he knows can't say.

"I remember being 8 years old and saying this is what I wanted to do, and I'm doing it. There's a great joy in knowing that every night I've got an opportunity to make 2,000 people feel something that they wouldn't have felt before," he said. "That makes it all worth it."


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