COURTESY JOAN MARCUS / © DISNEY
Living the dream
A local dancer gets her teeth into her role as a cheetah in 'The Lion King'
You can have your bubbly Disney teenage singers called the Cheetah Girls. For Honolulu audiences, the real Cheetah Girl is Charlaine Katsuyoshi of the ensemble menagerie on stage at the Blaisdell Concert Hall.
'Disney's The Lion King'
On stage: Through Dec. 9 (1 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays)
Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall
Tickets: $30 to $150
Call: 591-2211 or online at ticketmaster.com
Afraid that "Lion King" is sold out? It isn't. Tickets are available for many shows, although there aren't as many choices as there used to be.
We are, of course, talking about "Disney's The Lion King," the extraordinary musical based on the animated movie, and Katsuyoshi is the local girl living her dream. It means strapping on a puppet apparatus and making it come alive, singing and dancing and instilling a willing suspension of disbelief. It's all quite amazing to see, and Katsuyoshi is thrilled to be in the cast, but the icing on the cake is that the road company has set up camp in Honolulu. Cheetah Girl has come home.
"I love it. It's great to hang out with my parents, even if it's at a construction site," said Katsuyoshi, whose given name is a contraction of her parents' names, Charles and Elaine. Her grandmother (the famed Helen Chock of Helena's Hawaiian Food) died recently, and the old Nuuanu home is getting a long-delayed renovation. Whenever she's not perambulating onstage, you're likely to find Katsuyoshi at Home Depot or City Mill.
"It's a treat to be able to see your family whenever you want. When you're so far away, on the mainland, you get out of the habit; but here, you're surrounded by aunties and cousins and old friends."
She always has been a dancer.
"My training in Hawaii was really amazing, actually. My mom always encouraged me to follow what I loved and trucked me around to all the schools and teachers and classes here when I was growing up. She never forced me, although she always knew when to say something to make me better. I did it because I just loved dance. But I never thought I could do it professionally. Make a living at it? Come on!"
Local girl Charlaine Katsuyoshi meets "Lion King" fans on the Waikiki Beach Walk.
After graduating from 'Iolani School, Katsuyoshi attended the University of California at Irvine and began to dance professionally. "At that point, I began to think, maybe I could do this as a career."
After graduating with a bachelors degree in dance, Katsuyoshi did what many in the L.A. area do -- television. "I worked on 'Blade: The Series' and 'Fame L.A.,' but I was used to live theater. TV is all, like, 'Cut! Reshoot! Reset!' Very stop-and-go. I missed the audience."
And so when she was offered at slot in Connecticut's MOMIX dance troupe, Katsuyoshi didn't hesitate to relocate. "They're very sort of Cirque de Soleil, but with a lot of props and visual imagination," Katsuyoshi said. "I was there a few years, but it took me all over the world. I have a great memory of performing in an actual ancient amphitheater in Greece."
She then spent seven years with the modern-repertory company Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, performing a wide variety of contemporary ballets.
During her last year in Chicago, a "good friend who was in town with the touring company of 'Lion King' urged me to audition. I didn't want to do it. I didn't even have a current head shot or resume. ... I tried out, gave them an old photo and a reused resume with my contact information handwritten in the corner."
And that was that. Offered a slot in "Movin' Out," Katsuyoshi decided she didn't want to do that. She sold her house in Chicago and moved back to Hawaii, living off her house profits, working in her grandmother's restaurant and teaching dance part time at Mid-Pacific Institute.
"It had been a year since I did the 'Lion King' audition, and I didn't have much money left," Katsuyoshi said. "Then, out of the blue, they called. It was a Friday, and they wanted me in Houston on Monday. Pack everything you have, and get on the plane!"
She's been living on the road since.
"I keep it down to two suitcases, two small bags and my trunk. When I'm on the road, I do my best to get into the city we're in, see and do as much as possible, take yoga classes and teach dance classes. And I love to bicycle."
She says she's still "in awe" of how tightly managed "Lion King" is. "They're unbelievable. We move, they get it up and running in just a few days.
"You have to learn the entire show in less than two weeks. One big rehearsal, and then next show you're out in front of an audience. The first time you're scared out of your mind! But it's so busy, things flying at you and around you, you just fall into the clockwork and become part of the works. It's very smooth."
She did have to find the right balance of straps for the Cheetah puppet/costume to avoid back problems. "It's way out in front of you, like you're pregnant and also have a baby strapped on in front. A little awkward at first, but you know, our goal is to BECOME the puppet, not just manipulate it. You're not fooling anyone into thinking it's a real cheetah, but it should have the spirit and soul of a real cheetah."
Practice perfects timing. Katsuyoshi said that call time is only half an hour before the performance, and she morphs from a civilian into a cheetah in something like 15 minutes. And back into a civilian in even less time. "People backstage are always surprised at how quickly it shuts down. It's very businesslike. We're often gone before the audience has cleared the aisles."
Now 30, Katsuyoshi says that although she has some good years left, dancing takes a toll on the body. "At some point, I'm going to have to go back to school and learn a new skill set. But not tomorrow."
This particular company will break up in March after playing Mexico City and Milwaukee, and the performers will scatter. Katsuyoshi has a contract "sort of" lined up in New York, but acknowledges that she might get another call from Disney down the road. After all, Cheetah Girl is a skill set not easily learned.