‘Lion King’ is a show of wonder

08/31/2012 5:00 AM

09/01/2012 4:24 PM

When I was asked to travel to St. Louis to do a series of stories on Disney’s “The Lion King” in advance of its Wichita run, I was excited, partially because I had visions of eating toasted ravioli on The Hill.

I like music theater, and I loved “Wicked” when Theater League brought it to Wichita in 2009. But the idea of “The Lion King” on stage had never excited me before.

I’d seen the animated version several times, and “Hakuna Matata” had annoyingly ear wormed me throughout the mid-1990s. I couldn’t imagine I’d like the stage version that much.

Wrong.

The show was so artistic, so soulful and so much … bigger than I expected.

And the fact that Eagle photojournalist Jaime Green and I were invited backstage in late August to see the process that gets the mammoth production on stage made it all the more engaging.

We met all the makeup artists, four of the principal actors and a dancer who has 14 costume changes during each show.

We talked to the man responsible for keeping the puppets and masks working and looking new and the man who keeps the show’s 250 costumes, some so intricate that only trained “dressers” know how to get them on the actors, clean and organized.

We chatted in the pit with a friendly flutist who plays 15 different instruments during each show — from a tiny piccolo to a five-foot tall pan pipe.

It was fascinating to see so many theater professionals at the top of their games, performing their jobs with the casual attitude and concise perfectionism that comes from years of practiced repetition. I was particularly interested in the children actors in the group. Two boys and two girls play the roles of young Simba and young Nala, alternating performances because of their young age. They travel with a tutor and have “school” in a designated tutor room back stage.

Our first assignment was to watch Buyi Zama be transformed by makeup into the character of Rafiki, but I could not stop stealing peeks at Zavion Hill, the 9-year-old who played young Simba the night we saw the show. He sat quietly in the makeup chair next to Zama’s, having red paint applied to his chest and back. He never squirmed and barely spoke, and I assumed his role would be brief and uncomplicated.

So when I saw that same boy a few minutes later burst onto the stage – and realized that the bulk of the first act was carried on his tiny shoulders – I was amazed. I know a few very smart 9-year-olds, but I couldn’t picture any of them dealing with such grownup pressure. (We were told that the media visit doesn’t include time with the tiny actors mainly because producers don’t want to put forth the false image that “The Lion King” is just a kid show. It’s not, in any way, a kid show, though I’d say anyone old enough to appreciate the movie would understand and enjoy it.)

The tour we took of the backstage area also was breathtaking. From the ceiling dangled dozens of intricate animal puppets – leopards, zebras and wildebeests – stored up high until they’re needed on stage. The massive Pride Rock set was back there, too, ready to roll out on its computerized wheels. The wardrobe area for the ensemble is called “the bunker,” and it was a bench that spanned the length of the backstage positioned across from a row of mobile closets. Each closet had a number, and each number corresponded to an actor. Photos of which costume the actors were to wear were listed in chronological order where an army of “dressers” could see them and get the actors in and out of costumes quickly.

Jaime and I most loved learning about the cast’s and crew’s nomadic lives on the road. They tour constantly, for as long as they choose to remain with the production. They stop in a city for anywhere from a couple of weeks to a month and must arrange their own housing. Some stay in hotels. Some find apartments. Some, such as vibrant 24-year-old Jelani Remy, who plays the grownup Simba, look for locals offering rooms in their houses. He likes to have an organic, local experience, he said with a giant smile, and that terrifies his older, protective cast mates and handlers.

The cast members essentially move into the cities where they perform and spend their days sightseeing, eating in restaurants and shopping in local businesses. (I promised to send along a list of restaurants the cast shouldn’t miss while in Wichita).

Some cast members bring their families along. Some pal around with their best friends in the production. (Remy and Syndee Winters, who plays grownup Nala, are practically inseparable.) Cast and crew members told me that they often enjoy their stays in smaller communities more than in big cities, mainly because the reception is so much warmer, the audiences so much more grateful for a chance to see the show at home.

When I left for St. Louis, I was resigned to the fact that I’d be seeing “The Lion King” three times: Once on the trip, once when I review it in Wichita on Friday, and once when I take my daughter using tickets purchased long before I knew I’d have this assignment.

Now, I can’t wait.

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