Long Live the King: Broadway's The Lion King Roars Into Boise 

Jack Eldon, the vice president of domestic touring and regional engagements for Disney Theatrical Productions, dropped more than one statistical bomb during the Morrison Center preview of Broadway's The Lion King on May 21. Among them: the fact that The Lion King is in its 20th year on Broadway; that it has been seen by more than 98 million people; and that it's the highest-grossing Broadway production in history, pulling in more than $8 billion so far.

"That's billion with a B," Eldon told the crowd of VIPs gathered for the preview of the show, which hit the Morrison Center stage Oct. 17 and will run through Sunday, Nov. 4. "If you put [the earnings of] all of the Star Wars movies together, it still wouldn't have grossed as much as The Lion King."

The facts and figures show the play is wildly popular, but critics agree that it must be seen to be believed. Making an animated film into a stage production is always a challenge, but because the characters in Disney's 1994 classic are animals the feat is doubled in The Lion King, which relies on meticulously designed costumes, makeup and puppets to give the impression that there are lions, elephants, hyenas, gazelles, wildebeests, birds and more cavorting on stage.

click to enlarge BRINKHOFF-MOGENBURG
  • Brinkhoff-Mogenburg

"It's the trust that you have for your audience," The Lion King Puppet Supervisor Michael Reilly told Boise Weekly in advance of the production's opening night in Boise. "You trust that the audience is going to understand what's happening because they feel for the characters and the story."

click to enlarge DEE VAN MEER
  • Dee van Meer

Guests of the May 21 preview got just a taste of that drama: Though a cluster of performers made the trip to give sneak peeks of their songs, they were all in formalwear, saving their costumes for the play's true debut. Before Eldon took the stage, the night began when the house lights dropped for a powerful performance of "Circle of Life" by actress and singer Mukelisiwe Goba, who plays Rafiki. Her bold, sweeping notes filled the room effortlessly, and the Boise State University Meistersingers backed her up for the song's iconic chorus, setting the stage for more cast performances to come.

After the applause for Goba died down, Eldon talked through everything from the costume and set design to the musical composition of the production and the innovations made for the stage performance. Among those, he said, was the choice by Tony Award-winning director Julie Taymor to cast a woman for Rafiki and enhance Nala's role, giving women more representation in the play. Another was her decision to create custom masks and puppets that rest above or in front of the actors' faces, rather than covering them.

"Her concept was, 'never hide the humanity, always show the stagecraft,'" said Eldon, explaining how the Simba, Scar, Nala and Mufasa masks swing down to hover in front of the actors' faces during action scenes at the push of a button, then rise back up for dialogue.

click to enlarge DEE VAN MEER
  • Dee van Meer

"You always see both, you see the puppet and the human side to [the characters]. And we play with that," Reilly told BW later. "...Allowing that kind of duality is, I think, really engaging for the audience."

Between video clips of Taymor talking about her craft and diagrams of the various apparatuses that make the show tick—including a cart called the "gazelle wheel" covered in animal-shaped cutouts that give the impression of gazelles leaping when it's rolled across stage—other members of the cast performed. Highlights included when Adrienne Walker, who plays Nala, delivered a powerful rendition of "Shadowland," one of the songs created specifically for the Broadway performance, and when Dashaun Young, who plays Simba, joined her on stage for a playful performance of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight."

Goba also returned to give a demonstration of the African dialects incorporated into the show, holding forth in her native click language, Zulu, to the delight of the audience. At the end of her sassy monologue, Goba revealed that she'd been telling the audience to hurry up and buy tickets to the show.

Those who want to do just that are advised to act fast—tickets start at just $30, running through $175 at the high end, and have been on sale since mid-June. It's worth noting, too, that those in Boise's deaf or hard of hearing community won't be left out, as ASL Interpretation will offered Thursday, Oct. 25, for the 7:30 p.m. show. Visit the Morrison Center's website to grab seats seats before they're gone.

click to enlarge MATTHEW MURPHY
  • Matthew Murphy
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