Arts & Culture

August 31, 2012

‘Lion King’ ready to roar in Wichita

If you were born after 1994, the year the animated Disney film “The Lion King” was released in theaters, you likely know all about the circle of life, can easily translate “Hakuna Matata” and have shed a few tears over poor Mufasa and his heartbroken cub, Simba.

If you were born after 1994, the year the animated Disney film “The Lion King” was released in theaters, you likely know all about the circle of life, can easily translate “Hakuna Matata” and have shed a few tears over poor Mufasa and his heartbroken cub, Simba.

Nearly 20 years later, the movie — voiced by Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons with original songs by Elton John and Tim Rice — is up there with the likes of “The Wizard of Oz” on the list of children’s classic movies, and it holds the record as the highest-grossing hand-drawn feature of all time.

But Disney’s musical version of “The Lion King” — which arrives at Century II on Tuesday for a four-week, 32-show run — is a whole different beast.

It’s art in motion, a Tony-winning production sprung from the mind of director and designer Julie Taymor that combines fantastical animal puppetry, surreal costumes and a cultural buffet of language, dancing, makeup and scenery.

The musical, which after its 1997 debut on Broadway went on to become the highest grossing Broadway musical of all time, is accessible to children but not made for children. It features a mostly African-American cast, plus six African nationals, and it asks audience members to accept each character’s animal and human form simultaneously, presented in an unusual art form called “the double event.”

The touring production of the show that Theatre League is bringing to Wichita as the opening show for its 2012-2013 season has been on the road across North America for 10 years. It’s been arriving in Wichita for more than a week, hauled in 18 trucks, most of which are 53-foot semis, filled with 200 puppets, 700 lighting instruments and 18-foot-wide set pieces. The 52 cast members, which include stars Brent Harris as Scar, Dionne Randolph as Mufasa, South Africa native Buyi Zama as Rafiki and 24-year-old Jelani Remy as Simba, will arrive soon, fresh off a two-and-a-half-week run in The Fox Theatre in St. Louis. The actors make Wichita home for the entire run.

The Wichita show is special, says production stage manager Ken Davis, because “The Lion King” has never played here before. By contrast, the recent run in St. Louis was the company’s third.

“Wichita is a debut, so you can’t rest on your laurels,” Davis said.

The story of “The Lion King” focuses on Simba, the mischievous lion cub of Mufasa, king of the savanna. Simba is to inherit the throne from his father someday, but Mufasa’s jealous brother, Scar, has other plans. He enlists a band of hyenas to help him get both Mufasa and Simba out of his way. As Simba grows, he finds the strength to fight back against his evil uncle, aided by his love interest/childhood friend Nala, wise baboon Rafiki, protective red-billed hornbill Zazu, big-hearted warthog Pumbaa and wisecracking meerkat Timon.

The show features two parts for children, which are played by four young actors who travel from city to city with a tutor. The youngest two are 9.

It features songs from the movie, including the recognizable “Circle of Life,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Hakuna Matata,” as well as several songs original to the stage production.

Six indigenous African languages are spoken in the show, which also employs a 50-member crew that includes carpenters, electricians, musicians and a person whose job is to do laundry 40 hours a week.

The road to Wichita

Getting “The Lion King” to Wichita was a long process.

In the summer of 2010, producers visited Century II to see if it even could accommodate the massive production.

It could, they determined, but only with some significant changes.

For one, aisles would have to be created in the aisle-less Concert Hall to accommodate the famous “animal parade” that proceeds from the back of the auditorium at the beginning of each act. The theater already had planned a $2.3 million renovation that included new seats, and in anticipation of getting “The Lion King,” the venue put easily removable seats where the parade would happen. That renovation was completed in the fall of 2010. Other improvements to the theater were made to accommodate “The Lion King,” including a stage expansion. Those changes also will help Century II be a contender in attracting other big Disney shows in the future.

“This is one that’s going down in the books,” said Jacob House, Century II’s communications manager. “It’s huge, obviously, because it puts us on the map that we are able to support this type of production in this city.”

Wichitans will have an experience at the show that the animated movie couldn’t prepare them for, stage manager Davis said.

The theater version offers a completely different experience, one that Davis never gets tired of seeing despite his up-close view every night of the week.

Even after hundreds of times watching the show, Davis said, he often sees something new.

“Obviously, the story we’re telling is timeless and is very life-affirming,” he said. “Julie’s work is nothing short of genius. Even after two years and even after 10 years, if actors are not in the show that evening, they will go out and watch the opening number. It never stops being breathtaking.”

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