Disney’s THE LION KING
The Victoria Theatre Association
I have a confession to make: I, Shane Anderson, admittedly know very little about The Lion King. In fact, I know very little about most of the Disney films and musical adaptations. I’ve certainly seen some, but I have no children of my own, therefore I typically don’t choose to spend my entertainment budget on a movie ticket to a film marketed to kids. I get it…I get it… I hear that they are terrific for anybody at any age, but I don’t have that added motivation of a really excited 5 year old persuading me to go catch the latest Disney princess or talking/singing animal movie.
So, since I am not the Disney aficionado that many Americans are, I had to do a little research about Disney’s THE LION KING, which just rolled into town and opened at the Schuster Center this evening. So what else was I to do? I called up my favorite nephew, 5 year old Noah.
First bit of information I needed, was what is the plot of this show? Noah replied with a knowing smile (did I sense the slightest amount of a smirk at his silly Uncle Shane?) that THE LION KING is all about this baby lion named Simba, who’s daddy Mufasa dies because of a bad lion named Scarrrr (grrrRR..!), then the Pumbaa and Timon (not sure which is which, but one is a warthog with big horns) come in and sing Hakuna Matata and then Simba gets big and the girl lion tells Simba to come back and be king. Oh, and be careful of the 3 Hyenas, they laugh.
Ok, stay clear of the laughing Hyenas. Of course I already knew a little bit about this classic musical adaptation, it is a legendary production that very successfully melded together a very cool artistic vision with the business sense of a major corporate producer. I know that it was directed by the very talented Julie Taymor. I realize that even though the musical premiered on Broadway nearly fourteen years ago, it is still selling tickets both on the “Great White Way” and in multiple touring companies. This collaboration between a truly gifted artist and a major corporate entity has been highly successful, with no signs of slowing down. I knew all of that, but this is one highly acclaimed Broadway spectacle that I have yet to experience, and I am thrilled that the show will be spending four weeks right here in Dayton, Ohio!
I got the opportunity to spend some time chatting with three cast members of the show on the phone last week. The cast was in Toronto, Canada, where they had an extended stay. I spoke with vocal ensemble member and “Sarabi” understudy Electra Weston, Ben Roseberry who portrays “Ed” the laughing hyena, and the ever-popular Ben Lipitz who livens up the stage as “Pumbaa” the optimistic warthog.
I asked the group of actors about touring with Disney Theatricals, working with Taymor and what the experience is like in a production that thrills audiences of all ages.
The first thing of note is the appreciation the actors express for the company itself. “It is the best contract I’ve ever worked for,” Roseberry declares, “we are in each city for four weeks or more.” All three of the actors pointed out the fact that through Disney’s intention to keep the company in a city for an extended run of at least four weeks, allows the actors time to settle in and actually experience each city. Most other touring shows will have shorter runs, some as little as a day in each city, which leave the actors living out of their suitcase. Roseberry, an aviation enthusiast, says that he is very excited to have time in Dayton to explore the Aviation Trail, Hall of Fame and Wright Brother sites.
A surprise to me was the fact that the touring company has the opportunity to make their own housing arrangements, some choosing extended stay hotels, others are able to find short-term furnished apartments. Electra Wilson indicated that in her four years on the tour, she’d never stayed in a hotel. She ships her bicycle and typically manages to find an apartment within biking distance to the venue. This gives her the opportunity to become a member of the community, if only for a short time.
I was curious to know more about the experience of being onstage for these actors, what it was like to be on the other side of the curtain. The technical aspects of performing the show utilizing these puppets and intricate scenic elements must certainly be an incredible thing to watch not only from the audience perspective, but also from backstage.
All three actors found their roles very taxing, but for very different reasons. Weston says that her most difficult transition into the role was the English language. She had previously been a part of the German company of the show, so even though she is American, she found it difficult to sing her parts in English. She had to relearn the show in her native tongue, and had a tough time doing so!
“I can’t say it’s a bigger thrill than what the audience is experiences, but it certainly is comparable.” says Ben Lipitz, ” Performing in The Lion King is a rare experience in theatre, it is a landmark event for the audience, as a performer I have to take the storytelling very seriously. We have a responsibility to live up to the expectations [of the audience]. It is a privilege to tell this story”
“It took a good eight weeks of performing for the role to get in my body.” Roseberry said he was very nervous performing in his “Ed” the hyena puppet for the first several weeks he was on tour. He pointed out that he had to learn to harness that nervous energy, translating it into a good energy. Additionally he spent hours in front of a mirror learning how to operate the hyena puppet in as many expressive ways as possible, since the character does not speak, but simply communicates through laughter. (btw…”Ed” is not “stupid”, but rather he is “verbally challenged”)
Ben Lipitz has been with the show for nine years, both on Broadway as well as the touring company. He recounted that while his very first entrance on stage in this show was very exciting, that the thrill continues to this day. Ben’s experience as an actor (on stage, film & television, including a role on The Sopranos) didn’t really prepare him for operating the puppet, especially Pumbaa which weighs in heaviest at 46 pounds. Creating the physical articulation with the puppet is his biggest challenge, but also the biggest reward.
The beauty of Julie Taymor’s design is the duality of the character on stage. You see the actor manipulating the puppet, but you also see the humanity within the animal character. The actors praise the brilliance of Taymor’s vision and her famous “hands-on” approach to direction an upkeep of her vision. They report that there is a touring director and staff that continually monitor the show, maintaining the quality of the performance. This team works with the cast so that what we see in Dayton is precisely the same as the original intent of every step, word and note performed when Julie Taymor’s vision became reality in 1997. Taymor will even stop in to check on the show herself occasionally to be sure that her vision is never compromised (though this hasn’t happened recently due to her involvement in another theatrical project).
“I have been truly touched by how inspiring working with Julie is,” claims Lipitz, “[it is] her spirit and her energy. She is a gifted, visionary artist.”
While THE LION KING is a very complex machine of a show, with many moving parts and people manipulating every aspect of it, it is also child’s play. Experiencing this show on our side of the curtain will certainly be exciting, but imagine how thrilling it must be to make it all happen behind the scenes. These actors spoke as if it was truly an honor to tell this story, and be a part of the magic daily.
Before I got off the phone with Pumbaa, I had one more question I was required to ask. Noah wanted to know “what do you do with your horns?” Pumbaa claimed that his daily regimen included trying not to stay up too late, staying out of the sunlight and plenty of moisturizer. Pretty good advice for all you warthogs reading this.We encourage local theatre companies to submit calendar items HERE, and official press releases to onStageDayton@gmail.com.
Tickets & Performance Information:
Wednesday, June 15 through Sunday, July 10, 2011
at The Schuster Center’s Mead Theatre – Performance Times Vary
Tickets range from $27 – $141
Tickets are ONLY available through Ticket Center Stage.
Visit the Schuster Center box office in downtown Dayton or order by phone, at (937) 228-3630 or toll free (888) 228-3630. Ticket Center Stage hours are Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Saturday, noon – 4 p.m., and two hours prior to each performance.
Tickets may also be purchased online at www.ticketcenterstage.com.
For more information about Victoria Theatre Association visit www.victoriatheatre.com.
Downtown Dayton Partnership and the Victoria Theatre Association have teamed up to provide roaring deals and promotions for the The Lion King patrons. Read more about these exiting offers HERE.