The costumes featured in “The Lion King” — on stage Sunday for a final sold-out day of this month’s 32-show run at Century II — are dramatic and jaw-dropping. Viewers take in a wide variety of outfits, from the spinning, cone-shaped anthill dress to wild wooly wildebeest suits to a collection of colorful dashikis.
But you haven’t seen dramatic and jaw-dropping until you’ve seen the process backstage that gets those costumes on the actors who wear them.
The principal actors in the “Lion King” cast each wear just one costume throughout the production. But the members of the ensemble are in and out of colorful and complicated costumes that transform them from lionesses to fan-shaped jungle flora to hyenas to various parading animals.
Some ensemble members wear as few as four costumes during each show. But some have as many as 14 changes, most of which must be completed in two to three minutes.
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Wardrobe supervisor Gregory Young was backstage the morning after a performance in St. Louis, where the show played before coming to Wichita, describing the finely tuned, perfectly choreographed process that keeps the costumes in shape, organized and on stage at the right times.
The show features 250 different costumes on stage every performance, Young said. To keep them straight, they’re organized in a wardrobe “bunker.”
Set up behind the stage, the bunker is made up of a long bench positioned across from an equally long row of mobile closets.
Each member of the ensemble is assigned a number, as well as a closet. The closets have each costume the ensemble member will wear, meticulously hung up in order, labeled alphabetically. So ensemble member No. 26, for example, will wear costume 26-A first, 26-B second, etc. To ensure that nothing gets mixed up, each closet also has photos of the actors in the costumes, displayed in the order they’ll wear them.
Many of the costumes are so intricate and the changes so fast that the ensemble members also are assigned dressers – people assigned to get them in and out of each costume. The show travels with 16 staff dressers and hires 17 locals in each city to help out. The locals get 20 minutes of training at the beginning of the show’s run.
The costumes are varied and detailed and include beaded corsets, silk dresses, headdresses topped with patches of tall grass, leotards and bodysuits. They’re one-of-a-kind, made in five different costume shops in New York City, and are constructed using fabrics including silk, mud cloth, raffia, Spandex and yarn.
“Everything we have is custom-made,” Young said. “You can’t just go to the store and buy it.”
The bunker bench seats 24 actors, and it’s constantly full. An actor comes off stage, peels off her costume and tosses it in the bottom of the portable closet. The dressers are ready with the next costume, which they help the actors put on. Some — such as the hyena suits — are so intricate that the actors wouldn’t be able to get them on without the dressers’ help.
Amyia Burrell is ensemble member No. 26, and she changes costumes 14 times during the show.
She’s a zebra in the animal parade, a lioness, a hyena twice, a bird kite flyer, one of the “grasslands” dancers and a member of the dashiki-wearing dancing group that accompanies Simba during “He Lives In You.”
During one particularly stressful change, she must remove her grass headdress and skirt and put on her lioness leotard, corset, headdress and makeup in three minutes.
The constant action can be stressful, but getting the chance to wear those beautiful costumes makes it all worthwhile, Burrell said. She particularly loves her lioness outfit, which is made out of silk and feels good to dance in.
“You never have to worry about it being boring,” she said. “It’s a new show and a different thing every night. You might have a costume malfunction, or someone might trip on stage. Anything can happen at any point.”
Contributing: Lori O’Toole Buselt of The Eagle