The halls are eerily silent; school is closed, and the buildings are dark. Lights flicker on and off as you slowly wind your way through the passages, searching for some landmark or sign of your direction. Most of the doors you encounter are locked -- finding your way through the empty corridors is like navigating an endless maze.

As you open yet another door leading into yet another passageway, you hear a noise. Curious, you pause to listen and, after a while, ascertain that the sound is, oddly, bells. Why would bells be chiming in an empty building? Intrigued, you decide to follow your ears for awhile instead of your eyes.

After walking a little more, you enter an unfamiliar part of the building. Apprehensive, you pause to listen again. This time, you realize that the sounds are not chimes, but, rather, voices singing. You follow the voices, and peek around the corner, into a room that is, unlike its fellows, filled with lights, people, risers, threads and -- above all -- beautiful music.

Welcome to a rehearsal of "Cats" at Niagara Wheatfield High School.

"Cats," an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, debuted in London in 1981, premiering on Broadway a year later. It tells the story of the Jellicle band, an eclectic group of cats including memorable characters such as Old Deuteronomy, the Jellicles' leader, and Macavity, a master criminal and the Jellicle's chief adversary.

"The [students] are so unbelievably talented," says Andrea Letcher, drama director and musical producer at Niagara Wheatfield High School.

Seventy students are participating in the production, including 19 principal actors, eight first-grade girls dancing a "baby-kitten tap, jazz and ballet" routine, a third-grade boy, and a fifth-grade girl dancing a ballet piece. All the students are from the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District.

"We are [performing] the London Opera version [of Cats]," Letcher said in a recent interview. The entire show consists of song and dance.

RJ Crossley, 17, is playing the role of Munkustrap, the lead male. Munkustrap is the narrator of "Cats."

"He tells everybody what's going on," says RJ, who has been acting since sixth grade.

"I have to dance a lot," says RJ. "I'm not that good -- I never really danced before -- I'm used to singing and acting."

However, RJ says, he has come to enjoy his dance routines. For him, the hardest part of his role is not the physical aspect, but the mental. "I have to memorize all of the first act -- and it's hard to memorize."

RJ is enthusiastic about the upcoming musical, and hopes to continue amateur acting in the future.

"I like to act because I like to do different things -- I'm always different characters," RJ said. "It's relaxing -- after a stressful day -- it gives you a purpose."

Shawn Beghtol, 18, was cast in the role of Rum Tum Tugger. "He's pretty much the rock star cat. He likes to be the center of attention. He's overpowering," says Shawn.

Shawn began acting in 10th grade, when a friend suggested he audition for the school musical that year, "Aida." "I didn't think I would like it," Shawn confessed. He soon, however, became a theater devotee.

Bombalurina is played by Janelle Sabin, 17, who says it's an exciting role.

"I love it because I get to sing and dance," says Janelle, who studies tap, jazz and ballet. "It's just fun."

Rebecca Milleville, 18, plays Demeter.

"She is a seductive cat, but more conservative than Bombalurina," says Rebecca.

"I use my creativity and style to reflect my character," says Rebecca. "I play with what I can do," she added.

Almost all of the students participating in "Cats" will be on stage for the entire performance. A full set, including an oven, a car hood, a giant pipe and a hydraulic tire lift, will provide spots for the cast to rest between their acts.

Alyssa Remsnyder, 18, is Grizabella, the "Glamour Cat."

Alyssa's favorite part about the role is singing the famous song "Memory." "It's heart-wrenching," she says.

Alyssa began studying music at the age of 3. Her first musical was "Once On This Island," in which she participated as a sixth-grader.

Several members of the cast of "Cats" will have the opportunity to sing at Carnegie Hall in New York City the week following the performance. It is the second time the Niagara Wheatfield choir will be traveling to Carnegie Hall in the last two years, and many of the cast members are looking forward to returning to the Big Apple.

"It's the coolest experience," says RJ. "When we first stepped on the stage, our jaws dropped."

RJ sang a solo piece as a sophomore during his trip to Carnegie Hall. The choir will not be singing songs from "Cats," but instead a melody of different songs, including "Worthy to Be Praised" and "I Am in Need of Music."

Rebecca describes singing at Carnegie Hall as "fabulous."

"The director and pianist said we sang the best we possibly could have sung -- it was amazing seeing the actual hall."

"The acoustics in that building are amazing," says Alyssa. "It really is a privilege."

There is a general excitement and anxiety at Niagara Wheatfield among the students preparing to leave for New York City.

"Cats" will be playing at Niagara Wheatfield High School, 2292 Saunders Settlement Road, Sanborn, at 7 p.m. next Thursday and March 18 and 19 with a matinee at 1:30 p.m. March 19.


Beatrice Preti is a senior at Niagara Catholic High School.