Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical extravaganza "Cats" lasts about 2½ hours. But to get the touring show up and running is an all-day affair.
It took Troika Entertainment about six hours Friday to erect the show's famous junkyard set and hang up the dozens of wigs and feline costumes for its weekend-long run at Modesto's Gallo Center for the Arts.
With about 60 stagehands and crew members, it's the biggest show that has come to the arts center since it opened in September.
By comparison, it takes about six people to set up for a Modesto Symphony Orchestra concert and it took just four people to prepare for Barbara Eden and Hal Linden's spartan "Love Letters" play in February.
Alex Edwards, the 24-year-old stage manager who travels with the production, said the Modesto venue is a lot easier to work with than a lot of other theaters because of its superior design.
"It's a new space, which is nice," she said. "Some of the older venues are not equipped for a show of this size. ... Sometimes we have to make cuts."
To make "Cats" work, everything is planned to the last detail. The same effort and harmony displayed by the performers in the evening can be seen in the stagehands during the day.
8 a.m.: Unloading the trucks
The crew showed up to unload the production's four 53-foot trucks and get everything in place.
Troika, which has been touring the show around North America since October, has labeled or color coded everything and put together manuals with instructions about where each item should be placed.
In Modesto, the load-in process went smoothly, Edwards said. As always, the crew first set up the parts of the production that fly through the air -- the moon backdrop and the lighting equipment. Then, workers laid down the deck, the colorful flooring that lies on top of the theater stage.
"By traveling with our own deck, it ensures that the stage is the same size in every city," Edwards said.
This way, the performers don't have to alter their dance steps to avoid running into each other.
11 a.m.: Workers, props abound
The stage was crowded with workers in jeans and T-shirts rolling out huge crates, plugging in cords, taping down wires and carrying eye-catching props, including a 7-foot tire swing and a junky oven.
All the props are 3½ times normal scale to give the illusion that the human performers are really cats. According to Troika's press materials, there are 2,500 oversized props in the show.
Scott McKay, the Gallo Center production director, pointed at a woman in camouflage pants standing on a ladder and said he gave her her first job in 1994 in a theater in Fayetteville, Ark., where he worked. She now is one of the dozen crew members who travels full time with "Cats."
Such reunions are common in the theater world, where many live a gypsy lifestyle. Other stagehands said they frequently run into friends they first met in different parts of the country.
As the morning rolled on, some workers rode several feet in the air to the top of the proscenium arch on a Genie lift to check lights. Others started hauling out the junkyard walls. From a distance, they look like stone walls, but they are inflatable and have to be pumped up with air before the show.
Edwards explained that they are inflatable so they take up less space in the trucks.
Noon: Time for a break
Enough of the set was in place that some stagehands were told to go home and not return until tonight to help reload the production into the trucks after the last performance is finished.
All took their directions from Jason Edens, president of Local 158 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees in Fresno, the union that represents the area.
The 29 performers in "Cats" aren't union, but the backstage workers are. The show requires highly skilled workers who can handle the considerable technical demands of installing the set and running the sound and lighting equipment.
Except for the dozen crew members who travel with the production, the rest are hired from the valley.
There aren't enough union members in Modesto, so most of the local hires are from Fresno. Some are joining the traveling crew and cast in local hotels.
1 p.m.: On to wardrobe
A few of the workers started hanging oversized Christmas tree lights on the set and hauling in the remaining props, including huge bicycle wheels. In the halls behind the theater, wardrobe staff began setting up shop.
Becky Caraveo of Fresno joined a small group polishing shoes from the show. She said crew members know how to do the tasks from checking a manual.
"They have a big book," she said. "Everything gets done the same way."
Across the hall, one group hand-washed some of the 200 unitards while another patched torn spandex costumes. There are at least three sets of each costume so that if one is ripped or dirty, the performer has another to wear.
Nicholas Lee, a 21-year-old from Fresno who helped with the sewing, said he worked a full shift at a French bakery in his home city in the morning before making the drive to Modesto to work at the Gallo Center. He said he didn't mind the long hours.
"It's good for my union to be here," he said, adding that he likes Modesto. "There's 87 bars downtown."
Outside in the hall, David Hanson, a 43-year-old crew member who travels with the company, took fluffy cat wigs from a shelf in the hall and brushed and put hairspray on them. Based in Seattle, he has traveled with "Cats" on and off for four years.
He said he works through the performances, helping pin the wigs onto the actors during their quick changes in the wings.
2 p.m.: The stage is set
Back on stage, the set was up and stagehands were testing the lights and the fog machine. Backstage would be fairly quiet until the actors started arriving four to five hours later to put on makeup and get into their costumes in preparation for the 8 p.m. curtain.
Edwards, the stage manager, said she thought the day went pretty well. Friday's performance went well, too. Edwards didn't expect any problems during the rest of the run, but said she was sure she and the cast and crew could handle them if they did come up.
"When things happen in a way that's unexpected, everybody's good at adapting and working around it," she said. "Things always happen. That's the beauty of live theater."
When the show's final performance ends about 10:30 p.m. today, the 60 workers will reassemble to load everything back on the trucks as quickly as possible.
It should take only about 2½ hours, less than half the time of the set-up process. It's a lot easier to stack pieces in a truck than to decide exactly where they should go on the stage.
Next stop? Yakima, Wash.
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at 578-2313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.