It was in 2010 when Chicago actor Jake Klinkhammer last sported ears, a tail and lots of fur cast in the musical stage story of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats."
He starred in a June summer run of the production at the Wagon Wheel Theatre in Warsaw, Ind., playing the tale's narrator, the tabby called Munkustrap.
Four years later, he's once again wrapped in fur and relearning feline reactions for a new production of "Cats," which began previews March 26 and opens Wednesday playing until May 25 at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Ill. This time, he's playing the "cat's meow" Tom cat of the show, Rum Tum Tugger, who also happens to be the brother of his previous character.
"Playing the stage space at Marriott has a very similar feel to it for me, as compared to the Wagon Wheel, since both are nearly the same size and designed as theater-in-the-round for the audience and actors," said Klinkhammer, during a break earlier this month in rehearsals, or as the cast describes their training time: "Cats Class."
Based on the poems of T.S. Eliot, this run is directed and choreographed by multiple Jeff Award-winner Marc Robin with musical direction by Ryan T. Nelson.
"I've already had experience in doing my own cat make-up," Klinkhammer said.
"So I'm pretty quick, along with all of the gluing for the fur that goes on the face. But it's still taking some time for the rest of the cast to learn the process. My make-up design this time is based on a Norwegian Forest Cat. We're given our character's picture and a diagram with the make-up colors and the rest is basically paint-by-numbers."
Since premiering in London in 1981, "Cats" went on to become the longest running musical in the history of British theater and the longest running musical on Broadway. In 2003, the Marriott Theatre presented a new production of "Cats," directed and choreographed by Robin, which quickly became the best-selling show in the theater's long history. One of the audience's most requested encores, Robin has found the Marriott Theatre presents a whimsical, environmental production for intimate surroundings to bring audiences closer than ever to the "The Jellicle Ball," which is the magical alley festival of felines the musical chronicles.
Actress Heidi Kettenring is cast opposite Klinkhammer as Grizabella, the famed forlorn kitty who sings the gripping, passionate signature number "Memories" and Matthew R. Jones is playing Old Deuteronomy, the wizened, whiskered leader of the cat pack. The rest of the all-star cast includes William Carlos Angulo, Brian Bohr, Ellen Green, Shanna Heverly, Raymond Interior, Patrick Keefe, Tammy Mader, Luke Manley, Christine Mild, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Alexandra Palkovic, Sagiya Eugene Peabody, Andy Planck, Liam Quealy, Buddy Reeder, Sam Rogers, Laura Savage, Summer Naomi Smart, Adrienne Storrs, Amanda Tanguay, J. Tyler Whitmer, George Andrew Wolff and Melissa Zaremba.
As for this latest follicle frenzied stage run, Klinkhammer has found flowing amounts of hair as one of his running themes for his casting as of late.
"I grew up in Minnesota and after my work in 2010 at Wagon Wheel, I went back home and was cast in 'Jesus Christ Superstar' at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, which meant long hair for the role," he said.
"And then in 2012, I got a call from fellow actor friend Adrian Aguilar, who was being cast in 'Hair' at Paramount Theatre in Aurora, and he told me to come for an audition and not to cut my hair."
More Chicago-based theater production runs, such as playing pony-tailed bad guy Gaston in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier and a rollerskating dude in the 1970s silly favorite "Xanadu" at Drury Lane Oakbrook, also required lush locks.
"It wasn't until I played a soldier role in 'Miss Saigon' at Paramount Theater last fall that the long hair finally had to go," he said.
Performances for "Cats" are 1 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 1 and 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $40 to $48 and students 17 and younger and senior citizens 62 and older receive $5 off for matinees. Dinner and theater packages also available for $55 per person. FYI: (847) 634-0200 or MarriottTheatre.com.