“THE LION KING” ROARS INTO THE BUSHNELL


BONNIE GOLDBERG

The mighty roar of the majestic lion will resonate through the jungle kingdom of Pride Rock, as the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts welcomes “The Lion King” musical for three glorious weeks, Wednesday, January 27 to Sunday, February 14.   Meet the cub Simba who is being groomed for greatness by his parents King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi, while his evil Uncle Scar plots to take over the animal throne.

Scar encourages the impetuous cub to venture out with his best friend, the female cub Nala, into the forbidden land of the elephant graveyard.  This misadventure eventually causes Mufasa’s death, Simba’s fleeing his home because he believes Scar’s accusation that he caused his father to die and Scar declaring himself the new king.

With inspiring songs like the “Circle of Life,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Hakuna Matata”, composed by Elton John and Tim Rice, and outstanding direction by Julie Taymor, the show has been a singular success since its 1997 debut in Minnesota. Adapted from the 1994 Disney movie,  it has gone international, from Tokyo to Toronto, Sydney to Seoul, Germany to Johannesburg.

Giant, hollow puppets and actors in elaborate animal costumes portray Zazu, the hornbill bird of fascinating feathers, Rafiki, the helpful baboon, Shenzi, Banzai and Ed, a trio of angry and hungry hyenas and Simba’s newest friends Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog. You’ll also delight in the giraffes who walk on stilts and the lions who have mechanical headpieces that can be raised and lowered to simulate “pouncing” characteristics.

With a trophy case stuffed with awards, six Tonys, eight Drama Desks, six Outer Critics Circles as well as a Grammy and a host of others, “The Lion King” presents a moving African landscape pageant that is a colorful feast for the eyes and ears.  The jungle savanna leaps to life as the young Simba learns the hard way to be responsible for his actions as he struggles to achieve his rightful place as leader of the pride of lions.

Pride Rock pulses with this powerful tale as gazelles leap, hornbills preen, giraffes strut, lions lunge and hyenas plunder.  From the magnificently gliding eighteen foot giraffes, the lumbering thirteen foot elephants, down to the tiniest mice and ants, the attention to detail is awesome.

As technical director, David Benken has a fascinating and impressive list of theatrical accomplishments, including “The Little Mermaid” and “Mary Poppins,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “Peter Pan.”  On “The Lion King,” his role is challenging to say the least.  Being involved for the last dozen years or so, right from the beginning of the project, Benken found working with Disney and Julie Taymor a “remarkable experience,” especially trying to make their visions into realities.

A technical director basically is in charge of lighting, sets, props and sound, everything that is built, everything that moves, including hiring the crews that make it all happen.  “The Lion King,” because of its sheer size, presented unique opportunities.  Creating Pride Rock, where the lions hold court, comes out of the floor in the Broadway show, but for the national tour a whole new concept had to be created: enter David Benken.

On the road, Pride Rock is constructed in one straight line, eighteen feet long and fourteen feet high, made of metal, wood and aluminum, covered with textured paint, that is collapsed off stage but becomes immense and grand when computer controlled motors assemble it in the wings and thrust it on stage.

“The Lion King” contains sixty automated special effects and over four hundred automated sequences, which underscore “the wonders and frustrations of live theater.” Originally large twenty foot plumes of fire were desired but after extensive research by Benken were abandoned as just too dangerous for Broadway.

Benken is also in charge of researching all the theaters for the national tour to be sure they can accommodate the elaborate set that is carried on twenty-two semi-trucks, with an entourage of one hundred people, that includes fifty actors, super-techs and locally hired staff to run the show.  Scouting theaters is done two to three years in advance of the booking and many smaller theaters must make adaptations.  The Hartford’s Bushnell was no exception, having to blow out one wall and add extensive rigging.

The signature moment of the show is the parade of animals that comes in the first five minutes (don’t be late) and is decidedly some of the best theater ever.  If a theater doesn’t have appropriate aisles for the parade, as many as two hundred seats can be pulled to make it happen.  The idea is for the out-of-town audiences to see the same show as the Broadway production and it is David Benken’s responsiblility to achieve that goal.

Benken began his love of theater in high school as an actor.  After performing in a musical, it was suggested to him that he’d be better served by going backstage and working on design or lighting.  In college, he honed his technical skills and continued that pursuit straight to Broadway.   He can be thanked for making Mary Poppins fly, for getting the car Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to soar, for solving any technical problem that involves money and time.  Currently he is working on “Dream Girls” and the new Twyla Tharp “Come Fly Away” with Frank Sinatra tunes.

For tickets ($20.50-128) to “The Lion King,” call the Bushnell, 166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford at 860-987-5900 or online at www.bushnell.org.  Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., with a 1 p.m. matinee on Thursday January 28.

Admire the size, scope and grandeur of the African grasslands and its exotic occupants as you witness “The Lion King” and give appreciation for the technical skills of David Benken whose creative spirit made the hundreds of mechanical achievements possible.

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