Arts & Culture

‘Lion King’ stars find ways to keep performances fresh

They’re playing roles that hundreds of actors have played before them.

And they’ve played the roles hundreds of times themselves.

But night after night, matinee after matinee, city after city, the principal actors in the traveling cast of “The Lion King” have to find a way to make their performances fresh — not just for the audience but for themselves.

Three of those actors — Brent Harris, who plays villain Scar; Dionne Randolph, who plays king Mufasa; and Jelani Remy, who is Simba — sat down the morning after a sold-out August performance in St. Louis, where the show played before coming to Wichita, to talk about the dangers of falling into “autopilot” when they’re on stage and how they avoid it.

The actors admit that it’s sometimes daunting to put on the same costumes and the same makeup to say the same lines and make the same movements over and over. Typically, they perform the show eight times a week — twice on Saturdays and Sundays. Some of them have kept up that schedule since the show first played on Broadway in 1997.

But each actor said that the material they’re given to work with in “The Lion King” helps keep their jobs interesting.

Harris, the seasoned stage actor who plays scheming Scar in the show, has performed his role about 300 times, a relatively low number compared to some.

He was with the touring company from 2009 to 2010 and returned about two months ago.

His role is difficult because it requires him to wear a bulky, awkward costume and control his headdress, a mechanical moving lion head, with a hidden remote control buried in his palm. On the occasion when he is dreading the repetition, Harris said, it always evaporates once he’s on stage.

“Some days you do go into it and you’re dealing with that sense of, ‘Oh gosh, I have to do this again,’ ” he said. “But then you hear the audience almost instantly, and you’re reminded of how they’re seeing it, and for them it’s a unique experience, and it’s wonderful. And then you’re reminded that it is for you, too.”

Though it may be difficult for audience members to believe, every show is different, Harris said. But the differences most likely are noticeable only to those on stage.

For Harris, it might be as simple as a foot placement or a head tilt that feels better than it felt in the performance before.

The slightest differences are significant to the actors, who always are working to perfect their roles.

“I find it endlessly interesting that you can fix something and you can make something better,” he said. “You can try to figure out why it didn’t feel like it worked tonight, and you get so many opportunities to improve it and to get deeper into it. I always say my least favorite performance is the last performance of the show because you don’t get a chance to do it again. You don’t get a chance to do it better.”

Randolph, the 39-year-old baritone who plays Mufasa, has been appearing in some incarnation of “The Lion King” since 1994, including “The Legend of the Lion King” and “Festival of The Lion King,” both of which played in Disney theme parks. He wouldn’t even attempt to count how many times he’s stood on Pride Rock.

“No one has heard ‘Hakuna Matata’ more than me, I’m positive,” he said with a laugh.

Randolph learned years ago to recognize onstage distraction as a sign of imminent danger, he said. His moments on stage are so technical that if he stops paying attention, something usually goes wrong.

“I’m on the rock. I’m flying off the canyon. I’m doing all these things in such a short amount of time that I feel like I have to stay engaged,” he said. “The only moment I have that I could possibly go into autopilot is the ‘Under the Stars’ scene, which, to me, is probably the most important part of the show.”

Working with the show’s young actors also keeps life on stage interesting for Randolph, who must convincingly bond each night with Young Simba.

The actors who portray Simba range in age from 9 to 11, and their moods are unpredictable. Randolph, who’s known as “Uncle Dionne” to the young stars, likes to spend downtime with them frequently so that their father-son bond on stage feels more authentic. While in St. Louis, he took 9-year-old Zavion Hill for a ride up the Gateway Arch.

But he never knows what he’s going to get from his little Simba each night, something director Julie Taymor warned him about when Randolph rehearsed with her earlier in his “Lion King” career.

“Some days, Simba may be paying attention. And some days he may be looking at someone in the front row,” Randolph said. “For me, it’s always being engaged with him.”

At 24, Remy’s enthusiasm for the show is too new for boredom to be an issue.

Remy, who was recruited for “The Lion King” when producers saw him in a traveling cast of “High School Musical,” joined the show last year after a yearlong stint as Simba in Las Vegas. His first “Lion King” role was the “proud back legs of the rhinoceros,” he said.

Everything about his role excites him, Remy said, especially his dramatic entrance late in the second half, which he calls “the greatest entrance in theater.”

“I just love the energy I feel from the audience at that moment,” he said.

One of his two favorite parts in the show is the “Circle of Life” opener, which still gives him chills. Since he doesn’t appear until the second half of the show, Remy sometimes finds a way to peek his head out and watch the animal parade.

His other favorite part is the finale, during which he dramatically climbs Pride Rock as king. (He confided that Europe’s 1986 song “The Final Countdown” often is running through his head as he ascends.)

The job doesn’t feel like a job to him yet, Remy says with a smile.

“When you love what you do, is it really work?”

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