In recent years, making the transition from screen to stage has become somewhat of a Disney hallmark. The Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast in 1993 earned Tony nominations just three years after the production of the animated film. 2004 saw the release of a theatrical version of the Disney classic Mary Poppins. And in 2008, The Little Mermaid hit the stage and excited audiences with its roller-skating mermaids and underwater art design.
This week, however, Disney’s most successful onstage venture lands in Los Angeles for a run at the Pantages Theatre: Disney’s The Lion King. This particular production represents the first time the show has been in Los Angeles since its sold-out run in 2006.
“We’re really happy to be back,” ensemble performer Erynn Marie Dickerson said. “I wasn’t with the show the last time it was in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. This is really exciting for me and a lot of other people, so [we] couldn’t wait to get to L.A. … Homecoming is always really exciting whenever we replay a city.”
For Dickerson, who graduated from the joint BFA program with The Alvin Ailey Dance Company and Fordham University, this production of Disney’s The Lion King has particular sentimental value.
“I’m from Los Angeles originally so to play my hometown and to play the biggest theater in my hometown is such a blessing and such an honor, and I can’t wait to do it,” Dickerson said. “I think absolutely every single show has been through that iconic theater. So for me to be [onstage at the Pantages] is a little bit unreal for me.”
Of course, Disney’s The Lion King should resonate with everyone, particularly those who are familiar with the animated classic. The theatrical version tells the familiar coming-of-age tale of the lion cub Simba as he battles against his uncle, Scar. The love story between Simba and Nala remains intact, as does Simba’s friendship with the meerkat Timon and the warthog Pumbaa. Still, Dickerson warns, theatergoers should not expect an exact replica of the cinematic version they know so well.
“It is kind of extremely different from an adult’s point of view,” Dickerson said. “If you’re going to see it as an adult, you won’t feel like you’re seeing a cartoon transferred on stage. It’ll be night and day … For an adult, it’s not an expensive nap. And for a child, it’s not above their head. So it works for everybody. It’s a great date night. It’s a great group event. It’s so perfect for absolutely every age.”
In addition to its versatility, the show also contains a series of unique scenes and musical numbers that don’t appear in the animated version. With new songs such as “Chow Down” and “Shadowland,” it’s easy to see why Disney’s The Lion King earned a 1999 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.
“There’s a song that comes up twice in the show [in the] first act and second act,” Dickerson said. “It’s titled ‘He Lives In You,’ and this is a song that both Mufasa [and Rafiki sing] to Simba. And that kind of reminds him about coming back home and not abandoning your family and knowing who you are, and that’s not in the Disney production of the cartoon movie. And it’s such a beautiful song. I mean we sing it in two different variations because it’s so great. I think people will really love it. It’s a really great addition to the show.”
There’s also something particularly energizing about seeing a live production of a beloved animated classic. Talented actors come up the aisles. Eight-foot giraffe costumes bob and nod at the audience. Carefully crafted sets of Pride Rock and the sun provide live-action interpretations of familiar cartoon settings. The performance ensemble fuses jazz, lyrical and West African dance styles together to fit the different tastes and moods of the musical’s scenes. One number, “The Lioness Hunt,” is a particular favorite for Dickerson.
“It’s just so primal, and it’s all [this] female energy on stage,” Dickerson said. “Dancing women. Lady singers. Lady dancers just going in. It’s kind of a [hot chase], so it’s exciting … You can really get into it. We go on stage with different themes. ‘Alright tonight girls, we’re going to do fierce. Tonight we’re going to be sultry. Tonight we’re going to do this.’ Lioness is definitely the best [character] that I play.”
This current run of Disney’s The Lion King, however, is not only distinct from the original film version. Instead, each production of the show contains its own nuanced qualities that make the musical worth seeing even between different theatrical runs.
“[I]t’s always great to introduce Lion King to a new generation of little ones and reintroduce it to people who maybe have seen it in New York because the production is slightly different than it is on that stage,” Dickerson said. “[We] have to accommodate for a theater that’s not our own because we bring a whole bunch of our own props. [We] have our own custom-made floor that we have to put down, and that’s not really conducive to every single theater. We can’t do that everywhere.”
Still, even with the minor differences that accompany this production, audiences can still expect the pleasant surprises that accompany Disney’s The Lion King. The show represents a cohesive masterpiece that is almost overwhelming in its artistry.
“Never get too comfortable in your chair,” warned Dickerson. “Watch your back. There’s lots of stuff happening throughout the whole house. You’ll probably be turning your head 360 degrees the entire show, because it’s so interactive … You feel like you’re transformed into a different place for three hours. You’re not in Los Angeles anymore. You’re in the savanna.”
Disney’s The Lion King runs at the Pantages Theatre from Nov. 20, 2013 to Jan. 12, 2014.
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