Keeping kids entranced (and awake) crucial to “The Lion King’s” chances

Lion King” two-for: A Simba mask and a wooden puppet.
Kirvin Doak Communications

Brandon Ress had a front-row seat for the opening performance of “The Lion King” at Mandalay Bay last night.

Five minutes before the show began, he was in full slumber.

Tough crowd.

But give Brandon a break. He is 2 years old. Two-and-a-half, actually. He was toted to his up-front seating location by his father, Dr. Andrew Ress, a plastic surgeon from Boca Raton, Fla., and his mother, Jennine. The Ress family is visiting Vegas for The Aesthetic Meeting 2009, a convention for cosmetic surgeons and various body tinkerers being held at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. The Resses wanted their young son’s first theater experience to be something special. So after the show, I asked Brandon, “Was this special?” He blinked at me, then rubbed his eyes. Dad grinned and fielded the question: “As soon as the music started, he was clapping his hands.”

Brandon knew some of the material already, as scenes from the production are playing on a ceaseless loop throughout the hotel.

“It’s sort of hypnotic,” Dr. Ress said. “You can’t escape it.”

As you would expect for a Disney production, the audience for last night’s capacity-filled opening performance was teeming with children. It’s still jarring to me to walk through a casino sports book and into a theater filled with kids, for a show featuring two children (Ruby E. Crawford as Young Nala and Elijah Johnson as Young Simba for opening night) in centerpiece roles. It helps that the kids in this show are outstanding. They have grown-up talent and carry the production off with the ease of seasoned pros, or even better than some seasoned pros who can't be asked to actually sing onstage.

Little Brandon was among the youngest fans -- they don’t get much younger -- in attendance last night. The show’s length is sure to test the attention spans, if not consciousness, of many kids. Last night’s performance started a little after 8 and wrapped about 10:30 p.m., nearly 2 ½ hours including the intermission. That’s an eternity for a child, the approximate duration of five consecutive episodes of “Barney and Friends.”

But the kids were agog at the elaborate costumes, innovative puppetry (hard to top the elephant that lumbers down the aisle at the start of the show) and flashy, fast-moving performances in the new Mandalay Bay production. Seated in the row behind me were Liz Ficken and her 6-year-old son, Christian, and we chatted post-show at The Lion King gift shop. When I asked Christian what part of the show he liked best, he pointed up to one of the flat screens in the store and said, “That one, the part at the end.” It was the scene (spoiler alert!) in which Simba dusts Scar. Christian said he’d seen one similar such production in Las Vegas, “The ice show,” referring to “Disney on Ice” at The Orleans Arena. Liz chuckled and said, “It’s really not at all like this.” I asked Christian if he’d want to see “The Lion King,” again, and he nodded enthusiastically. A return visit might be postponed because Liz is pregnant with her second child, another boy, due in early June.

Outside the gift shop, I talked to Chandra Adair and her daughter Amari (age 5, as she flashed me in sign language). “It was good!” said Amari, whose eyes were a little puffy in a tired sort of way but who was nonetheless pretty spunky when talking about the show. “I liked the elephant.” She also favored the shtick-happy puppets Timon and Pumbaa (portrayed by Damian Baldet and Adam Kozlowski), who could splinter off from this production and start their own comedy act at V Theater at the Miracle Mile Shops.

I asked Amari if she would tell her friends that she liked the show. She thought for a moment and grinned, “I guess so.”

The famous cat seems to have captured this elusive demographic.

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