Thursday, May 1, 2003

'Lion King' backstage, it's really wild

All that amazing smoke 'n' puppetry needs constant tending and mending so the show will go on

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Makeup artist Jimmy Cortes applies makeup to Alton White, who plays Mufasa in The Lion King.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
It's a jungle backstage at The Lion King.

Late on a recent Wednesday morning, the Aronoff Center's Procter & Gamble Hall was alive with activity even though the curtain for The Lion King was more than eight hours away.

Some of the show's 50 stagehands were cleaning the computer tracks that run across the width of the stage. Others were working on the geyser valves that release a stage full of fake smoke.

Props are being painted, two guys are outlining the cloud pattern on one of the backdrops. When they're finished, their work will be sent off to create a replica for a new production in another city.


Thirty feet overhead is The Lion King's chief storage area, where the show's Elephant Graveyard menacingly floats. Bertha the Elephant, one of the stars of "The Circle of Life" opening sequence, is waiting up there, too.

The Lion King has had as mighty a roar in Cincinnati as it's had on Broadway, where performances still sell out after more than five years. Playing just under two months (March 21-May 18) it's the longest run in Cincinnati ever. To date, 173,588 tickets have been sold to its 69 performances in Procter & Gamble Hall.

All that's left for the remaining performances are scattered singles and limited view seats, and by performance time every night they're filled. You can still get lucky. Tickets are occasionally returned and re-sold on consignment at the box office (241-7469).

The show that's going on backstage during the run of the biggest musical around "isn't as pretty, but it's just as complicated" as what audiences see, says stage manager C. Randall White.

And it's just as carefully choreographed. Maybe more so.

Imagine being a performer coming offstage to do a quick costume change as the large Elephant Graveyard flies off and up into overhead storage and the wildebeest stampede moves into place.

The only thing marking a clear path in the dark is a flashlight at each end of the wings. "You have to know where to stand and when to stand," notes White.

What's going on this day is basic maintenance.

The first call for the show is 90 minutes before the 8 p.m. performance, when the 50 stagehands arrive to do an automation check (there are 40 moving pieces in the show) and rearrange everything from the end of the last performance, putting it back into place for the first act.

Patrick Page as Scar is the first actor to arrive at 7 p.m. His elaborate makeup and costume takes 45 minutes.

If you wonder how the 40 ensemble members make it through 15 fast-changes through the course of the musical, it's with the assistance of 19 dressers. It's impossible, says White, to wriggle into that hyena suit without help.

A few steps offstage, the puppet hospital is open all day every day. William Wilson, Kleev Guessford and Sue McLaughlin are responsible for keeping the dozens of animals in shape for stage, and that means daily check-ups.

On this morning, McLaughlin is rebuilding the leather straps to the aviator cap-like helmet that holds a giraffe head and long neck in place on an actor's head.

Guessford soon will be sanding a hyena, but now he's carefully gluing pieces of Simba's mane back in place.

Up close, that means placing plastic pegs filled with horsehair carefully into position and gluing them.

"It's temperamental," Guessford explains as he stabilizes it with a cotton swab and gently blows a very little talcum powder over the peg "to take the shine off the epoxy."

Mufasa's mane is made of burned peacock feathers, Scar is turkey feathers covered with cheesecloth. The masks are surprisingly lightweight, made of the same carbon-based material as formula race cars.

The puppet hospital is equipped with plenty of replacement materials and backup masks and puppets.

Bird puppet Zazu's strings are usually replaced at least a couple of times a week. The elaborate Grasslands headdresses receive ongoing care. The rigorous nightly workout that comes with performance makes them wear quickly.

One of these puppet doctors is always on call, remaining at the theater until the end of the show.

Typical emergency? Zazu's strings can break, the motor that controls the movements of Scar's mask can short out.

Then, there's the less typical emergency. Later that night, Guessford was spotted flying down the hall half an hour before curtain.

"The rhino's head fell off! We have to weld it back on!"


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