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'The Lion King'

by Gretchen Collins

May 25 - July 2, 2006 -- Tulsa Performing Arts Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma

With a mighty roar, Disney’s “The Lion King” packed up its trucks in Tulsa and moved on. In its wake, it left an economic impact estimated at $20,000,000. Total ticket sales of nearly $6,500,000 made up the lion’s share of that pie. People from 46 states and three continents purchased tickets and traveled to Oklahoma to see the musical. During its six-week run, 101,548 people saw “The Lion King.” It went on to break box office records at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, becoming the longest running national tour engagement to visit the state.

Here in the hinterland, that great unexplored expanse between the two coasts of the U. S., it can take a while for a production such as “The Lion King” to reach us. Celebrity Attractions, guided by its president, Larry Payton, who was named the 2006 Outstanding Achievement in Presenter Management by the League of American Theaters and Producers, has one of the largest Broadway subscriber groups per capita in the country. Nearly 10,000 strong, they embraced this production and Payton extended the run by a week.

“Many patrons took advantage of “The Lion King” as an opportunity to introduce their family and children to the excitement of the theatre, and the audience reaction to the spectacle of the show proved that it is truly a magical experience,” Payton said. Knowing your audience is the key to developing the right season. Celebrity Attractions surveys its subscribers to learn what they like.

Because the Tulsa Performing Arts Center’s Chapman Music Hall is configured with no center aisles, Disney provided engineers to remove approximately 150 seats from the auditorium’s orchestra level so the animals could make their famous entrance. It wasn’t as simple as just taking out the seats, it also included the addition of luminescent strips, the construction of two bridges across the orchestra pit, and alteration of the music hall doors to make room for the elephant to squeeze through. Disney paid for the changes and returned the hall to normal after the tour made its final curtain call.

A few subtle modifications in the production were required to make touring “The Lion King” possible. The only one audiences are likely to notice is Pride Rock. Instead of rising from the stage floor, it rotates from the wings. “This modification was required in order for the show to travel,” Kristin Dotson, Celebrity Attractions director of marketing explains. “(There is) no feasible way to reconstruct the stage in every new city.”

It was a long way from “The Lion King’s” debut at the Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theatre in 1997, but it was experienced by Tulsa audiences much as it was at its premiere. Kjeld Andersen, production wardrobe supervisor, said in a recent interview with “Intermission” magazine, “Many of us had reached the point where we really didn’t know if we had a good show or not. The first preview we did there was this incredible applause the second the curtain went up. It was fantastic to hear that.”

There were whispers from the impatient crowd of, “When is it going to start?”  Elton John’s familiar music and Tim Rice’s lyrics to “Circle of Life,” burst forth. What followed was a unique experience for most patrons. Just as it happened in Minneapolis, the Tyvek covered elephant received two rounds of applause, first upon entering the auditorium and again when it came into view of those sitting in the mezzanine and balcony levels. Those first four minutes were pure joy and wonder, even for die-hard theatre fans and reviewers trying to play it cool.

During the stunning parade of animals, children smiled from ear to ear and many adults wiped misty eyes. People twisted and turned in their seats to see what marvel would enter next: Giraffes, zebras, gazelles, lions, wildebeests, a rhino, and so many more.  Performers with twirling, diving birds took over the mezzanine. African animals poured into the auditorium along the new center aisles, and assembled on stage filling it from side to side and top to bottom. It truly catches you off guard, even if you have some knowledge of what to expect before the curtain rises.

The talent and imagination of Tony® winner Julie Taymor can’t be underestimated and is evident in her many imaginative costume designs. She co-designed the masks and some 200 puppets with Michael Curry. When extra lyrics were needed, she wrote those too. Her work with African-inspired fabrics, dazzling masks, and elaborate headpieces allowed each Disney character to be recognizable with the human element clearly there as well. The blending of human and animal was a duet of wizardry.

But none of this can occur without the people behind the scenes. A set crew of about 25 travel with the touring company, and another 25 carpenters, electricians, prop and sound technicians, hair and makeup artists, and wardrobe experts were hired locally.

Ketsia Poitevien from Oklahoma City was fulfilling her ambition of performing in her home state. “It has always been a dream of mine to come into Oklahoma in a musical. I feel so honored to do that,” she said in an interview with Carol Lambert of KTUL television, Tulsa. With the ensemble, she portrayed a bird lady, lioness, hyena, and a pod lady in “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” She was also the understudy for the parts of Nala and Sarabi. Poitevien wanted to be an actor and singer since childhood and grew up singing, using a spoon or broom handle for a microphone. Her family is very supportive. They’ve traveled to every city she’s performed in, including those in Australia and Germany.

The actors prepared in various ways to depict the animals. Wallace Smith, who played Simba, watched “National Geographic” programs on lions. He paid close attention to the movements of the big cats and how they reacted to their surroundings.

Perhaps the best dance sequence was during Smith’s performance of “He Lives In You.”  While not as technical as in some Broadway musicals, shimmies, free spins, and kicks by the ensemble were evident. Thanks to Garth Fagan’s choreography, the dancers showed grace and athleticism.

The challenge here is to dance–sometimes for 15 minutes at a time—while retaining the animal characteristics. Jumping, turning, pouncing, and fluttering the arms articulate both animal context and human emotion. The costumes are essential to the success of these sequences. Flowing fabric contributes to the illusion of flight and patterns trick the eye into believing it sees rippling muscles.

Percussionists Bob Garrett and Eric McKain added so much to the music and the authentic feel. They were in full view of the audience throughout the performance and unwaveringly stayed in character. During intermission they kindly spoke with curious children.

In the end, even the animals took their bows. Magic frequently occurs in the Tulsa PAC, but “Lion King” is a bona fide legend in its own time. Whether you look at it in terms of greenbacks or audience satisfaction, “The Lion King” reigns. In the hinterland, it became a roaring success.

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