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December 28, 2014

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Mane Attraction

‘The Lion King’ promises to be an emotionally gripping theatrical, technical triumph

Image

Leila Navidi

Costumes and masks from “The Lion King” are displayed during a media preview of the new production at Mandalay Bay. Various puppetry techniques were used to create the show’s effects.

"The Lion King" at Mandalay Bay

A dancer representing birds performs during a media run through of selected scenes from the new production of Launch slideshow »

If You Go

  • What: “The Lion King”
  • When: Previews, 8 p.m. today and Thursday; grand opening, 7:30 p.m. Friday; regular performances, 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; dark other Fridays
  • Where: Mandalay Bay
  • Tickets: $53 to $168.50; 632-7777

Beyond the Sun

Sun Blogs

The strange musical sound flows out of Buyl Zamma’s throat and chokes me with emotion. My eyes water as I sit awed by the opening number of “The Lion King.”

I wonder how the full-blown show will affect me if listening to a simple rehearsal with the singers and musicians in street clothes brings tears to my eyes. This is first time the 53 cast members, 23 orchestra members and conductor have gotten together.

“This will be the only time the orchestra will see the actors,” says Jack Eldon, vice president of Disney Theatrical Productions.

As the Tony-winning musical finishes up previews and “The Lion King” gets set for Friday’s grand opening at Mandalay Bay, most of the musicians now hide in the orchestra pit beneath the stage. Only two percussionists can be seen flanking the stage.

Astounding puppetry and colorful, exotic costumes tell the coming-of-age tale of a young lion and create a rich, family experience.

Kjeld Anderson oversees the costumes for all eight “Lion King” shows worldwide. He’s been with “Lion King” since it started on Broadway 11 years ago but he’s been in the business for 31 years, including 16 years with the New York City Opera and more than 100 productions.

“This one is bigger than them all, more challenging,” he says. “Someone’s mind went crazy and here it is.”

That would be the mind of Julie Taymor, who designed the costumes and the puppets and directed the Broadway production.

“Lion King” features hand-painted costumes and costumes colored by computer. There are masks and puppets that represent lions and lionesses, cheetahs, giraffes, elephants, hyenas, insects — even grass.

“She used different puppetry techniques from all over the world to achieve the effects,” Anderson says.

What audiences see onstage with up to 30 costumed performers is only a small part of what’s going on backstage.

“There’s as much choreography behind stage as there is on,” Anderson says.

As the cast flows on and off the stage, the scene backstage resembles the Spaghetti Bowl at rush hour. It’s constant motion as dozens of ensemble members make costume changes — some 250 changes in all. Sixteen people help the cast make the changes in a world of controlled pandemonium.

“One shoe in the wrong box and everybody goes crazy,” Anderson says.

Principals have dressing rooms. The ensemble changes costumes in a long, narrow passage behind stage.

“There’s no nudity,” Anderson says. “Everyone has a robe, underwear and slippers. The women have skin-toned leotards.”

The person who gave Taymor the freedom to be creative is Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group. Schumacher joined the Walt Disney Company in 1988 and was executive producer on the 1994 animated film “The Lion King.”

Since becoming president of Disney Theatrical Group, he has produced stage shows of “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “King David,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Aida,” “Mary Poppins,” “Tarzan” and “The Little Mermaid.”

With more than 20 shows around the world, Schumacher spends about half his time traveling.

Last fall he spent a lot of time in Hamburg, Germany, starting up “Tarzan.” This year the company tried out a new play called “Peter and the Star Catcher” at the La Jolla (Calif.) Theater, invested in a revival of “Pippin” at the Music Center in Los Angeles and opened “Mary Poppins” at the Cadillac Palace in Chicago.

“So I’ve been bouncing between Vegas, Chicago, La Jolla and Los Angeles,” he says by phone from his New York office. “This past Monday I spent in Palmetto, Fla., working on a new Disney ice show and a new Disney live show.”

“Lion King” in Vegas would seem to be a shoo-in, but the economy remains an unknown factor.

“It certainly has affected us — but we just set records in Washington with the tour of ‘Lion King,’ ” Schumacher says. “Shows are sold out, but not necessarily sold out at their top prices.

“There are a lot of offers, discounts and promotions. It tells you people absolutely want to go to the theater. Our occupancy rates have been fantastic this year. If you offer people a price that works, they will buy it. We’re not recession-proof, but there’s no question people are absolutely flocking to see theater.”

Which should make the Vegas “Lion King” roar with delight.

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