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Archive for Sunday, April 28, 2002

Disney takes ‘The Lion King’ on the road

April 28, 2002

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— Even for the wizards at Disney, moving a mountain from city to city is a tall order. The problem is to avoid the trap door, that is.

No theater is the same, as "The Lion King" tours America. Pride Rock can pop up at different spots on the stage in each city, so actors have to be alert. It's also prohibitively expensive to try to move the 10,000-pound set piece up through the stage floor of the 11 cities on the tour. And it would take at least two weeks to fit such a platform in each city, making an efficient tour impossible.

Not to mention that the show "can't go ripping everybody's theater apart," said Thomas Schumacher, producer of both the movie and the musical.

But in the spirit of "Hakuna Matata" no worries.

Technical director David Benken rigged Pride Rock where much of the story of intrigue and fratricide in a lion kingdom takes place so it could roll on the stage from either side by radio control.

"It actually adds a larger sense of movement on the stage. In some ways it is a plus," Benken said.

"The Lion King" tour is the most complicated show ever for Benken, who has worked on Broadway and with touring shows for two decades. His credits include "Peter Pan," "Miss Saigon" and "Beauty and the Beast."

"If you won't compromise, and Disney won't, a tour is always more expensive," he said. "The audience wants to see the same thing audiences in New York saw. We have spent a lot more money than other shows to keep it looking large."

With the cast, crews, managers and musicians, there are more than 150 people in the show that opened Saturday at the Buell Theater in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

The elaborate musical won six Tony Awards under the direction of Julie Taymor, with an Elton John-Tim Rice movie score supplemented by three new songs and three additional numbers by Lebo M and Mark Macina. Taymor and Hans Zimmer contributed.

"These will be really proper productions," Schumacher said. "The experience that you'll have is the full theatrical experience the full-blown 'Lion King.'"

That means more than 100,000 pounds of props suspended from rigging, including the elephant graveyard. Craftsmen will wait in the wings to fix puppet pieces that fall apart during the show.

When the lion king Mufasa falls sideways to his death in a wildebeest stampede, a three-person crew makes it possible by pulling him along two tracks.

David Hearn spent many hours inspecting rigging and coaxing dancers through the show's flying scenes. "Up girl, down boy," he shouted during daily tests of a scene in which two couples dance in the air during the love scene between lion hero Simba and lioness Nala. During the show, a manager and six crew members move the two couples.

"Dancers are used to having contact with the floor and must feel comfortable and safe," Hearn said.

In the weeks leading up to the opening, the Buell looked a bit like mission control. Computers filled more than a dozen seats as crews set up the show. The company spent $2 million for lights and sound gear.

The tour is likely to run for years, and Benken's job is to make sure that the show works in every theater.

"I'd like to think we are looking at the next 'Cats' but on a much larger scale," he said.

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