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September 18, 2014

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Mandalay Bay’s Hornbuckle is nuts — for “The Lion King”

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Kirvin Doak Communications

Buyi Zama-Rafiki sings the “Circle of Life” with cast members during a rehearsal of “The Lion King” on Monday.

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Bill Hornbuckle.

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Thomas Schumacher, the king of "The Lion King."

On Monday morning, Thomas Schumacher, whose production of “The Lion King” is lunging at full sprint for Mandalay Bay Theater, introduced Mandalay Bay President Bill Hornbuckle as “insane.” Hey, I thought, “There’s the lead!”

But Schumacher was kidding (hence the grin) in his remarks at the rehearsal home of “The Lion King,” which is a big, prop-bedecked warehouse next to the Lamborghini dealership on Dean Martin Drive (if any cast member gets bored between scenes, he or she can ask sales whiz Eden Hatle to test drive a 2009 Reventon). This crew is fired up, to be sure. Everyone involved in the show was so upbeat at this early morning event, I actually sniffed my coffee for Maker’s Mark. For the first time, the cast sang a buoyant version -- as if there were going to be any other version -- of “Circle of Life,” and I was reminded of the line from “A Mighty Wind”: “They’re the kind of infectious that’s good to spread around.”

Nope, when you’re with the crew from “The Lion King,” you got no problems, mon, money-wise or otherwise.

But Hornbuckle’s hotel, existing as it does in Las Vegas, is experiencing the same economic woes all other resorts are feeling up and down the Strip. What any casino exec has to consider, and why you might joke that Hornbuckle is insane for launching a full-scale production into the teeth of a recession, is that fewer people are visiting Las Vegas today for any reason. Tourism in January dropped nearly 12 percent from January 2008. Daily room rates are down almost 20 percent from last year, occupancy is now at less than 50 percent, and the hits just keep on coming to the local economy.

THE LION KING First Rehearsal

Video News release, courtesy of MGM Mirage.

But Hornbuckle says he’s not concerned, and his fixed smile and confident disposition is convincing. He has Disney on his side, for starters. “I feel better about this show than any show I’ve been around for a long time,” Hornbuckle said after Monday’s showcase. A resort executive for 30 years, Hornbuckle knows his way around the industry. He was president of the MGM Grand when it opened The Mansion, its conference center, its spa complex, Lion Habitat, Studio 54 and the then-Le Femme (now Crazy Horse) Theatre. He was also president at Caesars Palace and spent much of his career prior to then with Mirage Resorts, pre-MGM merger. Hornbuckle hasn’t trotted out many losers, put it that way.

“I’m excited we finally got this show onstage, and it couldn’t have come along at a better time. It’s uplifting, and it’s a proven commodity.” That’s been the case for a while. Disney and Hornbuckle’s MGM Grand were in talks that would have brought the beast to that hotel nearly 10 years ago. The lion theme would have been an ideal hook, but the 9/11 attacks wiped out that possibility. So it’s down the Strip a spot, at Mandalay Bay, that Disney takes its first bows in Vegas.

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"Lion King" two-for: A Simba mask and a wooden puppet.

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Hey, it's a cheetah puppet.

Hornbuckle recited “The Lion King’s” proven strengths: Its durability (12 years on Broadway), its wide international appeal (45 million people in 11 countries have seen the stage show) and its ageless appeal (the show’s target age demographic covers toddlers to those whose birthdays have been broadcast by Willard Scott). “It is known to appeal to a broad audience. It’s a known commodity,” said Hornbuckle, whose hotel just closed another known commodity in “Mamma Mia!,” one of the great Strip success stories of the past decade. That show ran for nearly six years and 2,248 performances, outlasting quite a few equally famous Broadway-styled productions. Whether “TLK” (let me be the first to put that hep acronym out there) can fill enough of the 1,600-capacity Mandalay Bay Theatre to keep purring is the big question.

“This is about appreciating live theater,” Hornbuckle said. “It’s relatively modest. It’s not about how much technology we can put out there. We’ve got a brand that has worked for two decades, and we’re looking at bringing in not only the 38-to-40 million people who visit Las Vegas each year, but the two million who already live here.”

Hornbuckle then paused and glanced at the color-splashed stage effects strewn across the floor of the rehearsal hall. “You’d be surprised at how many people have not seen ‘The Lion King.’ ”

Maybe not. I’m looking forward to seeing it. I heard it’s great. Wee-ee-ee-ee-eee-he-eeee-heee, um-um-buway.

"King" and I

Two more notes on "TLK." Tickets will be sold during a special on-sale event from 7 to 10 a.m. Saturday. Those purchasing tickets during that time will receive a gift (while supplies last -- NO gifts after supplies run out), and tickets range from $53 to $113.50 (plus service fees). A VIP package including premium seating, a complimentary souvenir program and a gift is available for $168.50 (plus fees). ... Schumacher said he remembered his first visit to Vegas in the mid-'70s, when he saw Bob Newhart headline at the Riviera. Newhart would later voice Bernard in "The Rescuers Down Under," which Schumacher produced.

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