The Lion King roars into Las Vegas

Tshibi Manye, who plays Rafiki in the Broadway cast of The Lion King, performs a number during a preview event for the show, which will open in May 2009 at the Mandalay Bay Theatre.
Photo: Leila Navidi

With her face painted a deep red and wide yellow circles framing eyes accented in blue and white, Tshidi Manye sang the first trembling bars from The Lion King musical.

Standing on Mandalay Bay Theatre’s unadorned stage in full, African-inspired costume, Manye, who plays the shaman-like baboon Rafiki in the show’s Broadway cast, was all the more striking for looking out of place.

An air of anticipation filled the theater, where local media and invited guests gathered Friday afternoon for a preview of The Lion King musical, which will open at the casino on May 2, 2009.

Since premiering in 1997, the musical based on the classic Disney film by the same name, has taken the theater community and the world by surprise. It’s won six Tony Awards, including best musical, has played in 12 countries and been seen by 50 million people. Last year polling of audiences in New York revealed that for 60 percent of viewers The Lion King was their first Broadway show.

The Lion King preview at Mandalay Bay

However, not everyone thought adapting the popular film for the stage would work.

“I thought it was a terrible idea,” The Lion King producer and president of Disney Theatrical Productions Thomas Schumacher told the audience gathered at Mandalay Bay.

In between numbers from Manye and other Broadway leads, Schumacher, who also produced the movie, gave a presentation on the musical its more than decade-long history.

Lion King does Vegas

When then CEO of The Walt Disney Company Michael Eisner approached him about putting the The Lion King on stage, Schumacher said he did his best to ignore the idea.

He had visions of furry lion suits dancing on Broadway, and “Cats already existed,” he said with a laugh.

But Eisner’s mind was made up. And, having been overruled, Schumacher moved forward.

“I had one brilliant idea,” he recalled, “Julie Taymor.”

A film and theater director and MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship recipient, Taymor took on the role of director and designer for The Lion King and became the show’s creative guide. She sculpted masks from clay that would inspire those worn today by performers on stage. She imagined a cast that used both costumes and specially engineered puppets to recreate the African savannah so vibrantly alive in the film.

“It looks like Africa,” Schumacher told the crowd, gesturing to an image projected on a large screen behind him of actors from the musical posed with wide troughs of grass sprouting on top of their heads. “It’s not photorealism. We’re celebrating essence.”

That essence is born of both the performers from the ensemble cast and the intricate costumes, masks and puppets that they use through the show. A giraffe is played by a person wearing stilts. A cheetah springs from an actor whose legs become the cat’s hindquarters, while his arms manipulate the front legs with long rods. The actor’s head is affixed to the puppet cheetah head using long wires, so that when the actor turns his head to one side, the animal’s head moves in tandem. While the audience understands that this person is playing a cheetah, Schumacher explained, they never lose sight of the human behind the character.

But more than staging or intricate costumes, Schumacher stressed that it’s the story of The Lion King that has made it so successful.

Unlike many American theater productions, its messages are universal, he said. In fact, the show is now the longest running musical in Tokyo, Japan.

Perhaps one of the greatest surprises then, is that it hasn’t played Vegas sooner.

“Timing is elusive,” Schumacher said, explaining that Disney had been working with MGM Mirage to mount the production in 2001, but that after the attacks on September 11, the show was put on hold.

Now, 11 years after first opening, The Lion King will set up shop on the Strip.

“Very few places in the world does everyone see the full Lion King,” Schumacher explained, noting the dramatic staging of the musical. But the Vegas production, which begins previews in late April, will include everything the Broadway show has become famous for.

While the theater itself won’t be undergoing any large-scale renovations, Schumacher vowed they would tear apart the stage that has been home to Mamma Mia for the past five years.

We start, he said, the minute the last beach towel hits the ground.

“The big goal is staying true to [the show],” Schumacher said, adding that performers from other casts are already calling to ask for roles in the Vegas production.

And while Broadway shows have experienced varying degrees of success on the Strip, Schumacher seemed unconcerned about mounting the musical in the local entertainment landscape.

The Lion King is different, he explained. “It doesn’t play like a Broadway show anywhere.”

Besides, “every great Vegas entertainer has also been a one-off.”

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