Saturday, November 5, 2016

Does This Proscenium Arch Make Me Look Fat?

From Donald Trump's tiny hands to the news that 24 nations and the European Union have agreed to create the world's largest marine sanctuary in Antarctica's Ross Sea, it would seem that size (as they say) is everything. If you don't believe me, let me recommend an article by Frank Bures entitled In the Late 1960s, Singapore was Gripped By a Genital Panic: Of All the National Panics, This Might Be the Most Bizarre.

In the theatre world, costumes are constantly altered to accommodate cast changes. Sometimes theatres need to be altered as well. Plans by PBDW Architects have been approved which will raise Broadway's historic Palace Theatre 29 feet above its current elevation in order to accommodate new retail spaces and add 10,000 square feet of theatre facilities.

  • Completed in 1932, San Francisco's 3,146-seat War Memorial Opera House has undergone two major renovations. From 1979-1981, the backstage area was extended and a new wing added which augmented the space available for set storage and administrative offices. The Zellerbach Rehearsal Room (which matched the dimensions of the Opera House's stage) opened behind the neighboring Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, thus freeing up more time for tech rehearsals on the main stage.
  • Originally opened in 1922 (and named after Homer Curran), San Francisco's 1,667-seat Curran Theatre has been undergoing renovations and is scheduled to reopen on January 25, 2017 with the touring production of Fun Home.
  • The 2,297-seat Golden Gate Theatre opened in 1922 as a vaudeville house and functioned as a movie palace for many years. In 1979, it was restored to its original size and once again put to use as a legitimate theatre capable of hosting complex touring shows as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
  • The Orpheum Theatre debuted in 1926 as a vaudeville house that was part of the famous Pantages circuit. In 1998, the theatre underwent a $20 million renovation designed to make it more hospitable to touring Broadway shows. The process included deepening the stage floor by nine feet, reconstructing the stage house, refurbishing the auditorium and lobby areas, enlarging the fly loft, increasing the backstage area required to store equipment and accommodate larger stage crews, building new dressing rooms as well as facilities for props, a house carpenter and an electrical office, and installing a new stage floor that included a 40' x 24' removable trap area. The Orpheum has since been the go-to house for touring productions of shows like Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Lion King.

After the full-length animated feature film of The Lion King was released in 1994, it spawned an empire of spin-off products and a jungle filled with Lion King tchotchkes. The Walt Disney Company's powerful Lion King franchise now includes two animated series (The Lion King's Timon & Pumbaa and The Lion Guard), two direct-to-video films (The Lion King II: Simba's Pride and The Lion King 1-1/2), and one television film (The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar) Add to the mix a book of short stories inspired by The Lion King, a play (The Legend of the Lion King), three Lion King-inspired theme park attractions, four short films, five recordings of music from various Lion King ventures, and 11 Lion King-themed video games. Minus a partridge in a pear tree surrounded by a pack of adorable lion cubs, it's obvious that The Lion King also belongs to the species known as a cash cow.

Since its Broadway premiere on November 13, 1997, more than 85 million people have attended performances of Julie Taymor's stage version of The Lion King in 24 productions around the world (as of October 30, the Broadway production has logged 7,890 performances). Not only has the story of The Lion King become a staple of popular culture internationally, it has even had an impact on the White House (where members of the Gazelle company's touring cast performed for the 2014 Kids State Dinner hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama).

The Lion King recently returned to the Orpheum Theatre for the holiday season in what will most likely be the last appearance of the current touring production. As was recently reported, this Lion King tour will close in summer 2017 so that new technical modifications can be implemented. Led by Julie Taymor, the original design team aims to "re-create and refresh their original designs for this state-of-the-art production, which will be equal in size and scope to the current one."

In 2013, a new production of The Phantom of the Opera designed by Paul Brown, directed by Laurence Connor, and overseen by Cameron Mackintosh and Matthew Bourne started touring the United States. The economic goal of the revised production centered around reducing the time and labor costs of loading the show in and out of regional theatres. While there is no way of knowing what adjustments Disney Theatrical Productions, Ltd. will make for the revised production of The Lion King, I'm willing to bet that some of the new technology for digital mapping will be incorporated into Taymor's staging.

While Disney has always been extremely finicky about quality control, what the audience sees onstage during any performance of The Lion King is only part of the story. With 220 costumes and 230 puppets (in addition to the show's scenery), moving The Lion King out of one theatre and into another is a massive operation complicated by the variation in backstage facilities and storage areas in different theatres.

Starting in October 2017, the North American tour will employ a newly-configured production that can be booked into venues that previously could not have accommodated the show (as well as return engagements in familiar markets like San Francisco, where the show has previously met with extended success). As Thomas Schumacher, the President of the Disney Theatrical Group, explains:
“Bringing the exhilaration of musical theater to new audiences is our deepest passion. I remember clearly when The Lion King opened on Broadway, the comment we most heard was ‘You’ll never be able to recreate the spectacle on tour.' Yet, Julie Taymor and her team cracked it and found a way to deliver the Broadway experience on the road for the last 14 years. Now, that same group of artists has used their ingenuity to deliver the show to markets we never imagined we would be able to reach because of the show’s complexity. ”

Mukelisiwe Goba as Rafiki in a scene from
The Lion King (Photo by: Matthew Murphy) 

Several years ago, when the national tour of The Lion King was performing at the Buell Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, a series of short infomercials offered ticket buyers a sneak peek at how such a complicated show functions backstage.

With Julie Taymor's creativity on full display, there is so much spectacle to take in during any performance of The Lion King that one of the show's specialties is its ability to remain dazzlingly fresh after repeated viewings. On opening night, when the sound system was compromised due to a malfunction with a performer's body mic, the curtain came down during an announcement that technical difficulties would require a short break in the first act. Since everyone in the audience had heard what was causing the problem, there wasn't a whisper of complaint. When the show resumed approximately 10 minutes later, the audience (as well as the cast) simply picked up where they had left off.

Jalen Harris (Simba) and Nia Holloway (Nala) posing for a selfie backstage

No matter how many times one sees The Lion King performed onstage, the riot of color in Taymor's costumes never fails to stun one's senses, as does the fact that six indigenous African languages (Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, and Congolese) are sung and spoken throughout the show. The brilliance of Richard Hudson's set design, Donald Holder's lighting, Michael Ward's hair and makeup design, and the masks and puppets designed by Julie Taymor and Michael Curry never fail to thrill audiences.

The show's cast is divided into lions, hyenas, an obstreperous baboon, and a comic relief duo comprised of a mouthy meerkat and a flatulent wart hog. While I can't identify the two children who portrayed young Simba and young Nala, Gerald Ramsey appeared as the mature Mufasa, with Jennifer Theriot as his mate, Sarabi, and Mark Campbell as his villainous brother, Scar.

Jalen Harris brought a keen athleticism to the grown Simba, with Nia Holloway equally charming as his childhood friend, Nala. As the baboon/narrator, Rafiki, Buyi Zama brought her thrilling voice to bear in key moments while Drew Hirschfield scored lots of laughs as Zazu (the red-billed hornbill with delusions of grandeur who serves as majordomo to Mufasa and, later, to the evil Scar). As always, Timon (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz) stole the show with their bad puns and grub-eating shtick. Never have fart jokes been as welcome or endearing!

Nick Cordileone (Timon) and Ben Lipitz (Pumbaa) in
a scene from The Lion King (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Other than the audio malfunction in Act I, the sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy was much better than what one typically hears at the Orpheum. Performances of The Lion King continue through December 31 (click here for tickets).

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