EXCLUSIVE: Behind the scenes of 'The Lion King' rehearsals in Manila

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Quintessential African beats, elaborate puppetry, and show-stopping performances await audiences of “The Lion King” in Manila. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “I’ve been looking forward to this since May last year,” says Calvyn Grandling, who plays Simba in the international tour of “The Lion King,” opening in Manila on March 18.

Grandling mills with the multinational cast in the music room of the Star Theater, munching on dried mangoes and pastries frosted with lions. He’s not the only one brimming with energy, as the excitement in the air is apparent — it’s day one of rehearsals, this is the cast’s first stop in a worldwide tour, it’s the musical’s 20th anniversary on stage, and there are six young Filipino actors joining the cast not only in Manila, but also in Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, and South Africa, among others.

Set-3.jpg There are 18 nationalities represented in the cast: mostly South African, with some hailing from Mexico, Zimbabwe, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Photo by JL JAVIER

The young Filipino actors comprise of JJ Dolor, Gabo Tiongson, and Omar Uddin alternating for the role of young Simba, and Sheena Bentoy, Uma Martin, and Felicity Napuli rotating for the role of young Nala. There are 18 nationalities represented in the cast: mostly South African, with some hailing from Mexico, Zimbabwe, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Together they make up a rowdy and spirited crowd. When they sing “The Circle of Life,” as they did for an exclusive press conference on day one of rehearsals, one is transported to somewhere else more extraordinary, where the heart is at peace and restless at the same time.

“I think ‘Circle of Life’ as an opening number in a musical is probably the most spectacular in any musical ever,” says Antony Lawrence, who plays Scar. “The other day we heard the guys sing it, and I was just tearing up, it’s incredible. This cast singing this song, especially with many of the cast being from Africa, and singing these lines, and they know it, they’re talking and having genuine conversations ... I just stop and go, ‘Oh my God, I want to know what all this means and stuff.’”

Set-11.jpg The costumes, music, and set design provide a sensory feast. “Thank God for Julie Taymor! She did a fantastic job with the costumes. Wonderfully made. You will be drawn. There will be no difference between what you saw on film and now onstage,” says Calvyn Grandling, who plays Simba. Photo by JL JAVIER

The animated film, arguably still Disney’s best and its top-grossing (for traditional animation), has enamored both children and adults since 1994. To put it on stage is another thing altogether — one that required Julie Taymor’s avant-garde direction and flair for mask and puppetry (along with co-designer Michael Curry), Garth Fagan’s choreography, Lebo M. and Mark Mancina’s additional music and lyrics (there are seven additional songs not in the movie), among many others, all taking their cue from the masterpiece of Elton John and Tim Rice’s music and lyrics, and the book written for the musical by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi.

Now that the cast is here, there is more to watch out for in the much-anticipated Manila run of “The Lion King.” CNN Philippines Life talked to some of the cast during rehearsals, and asked them what makes “The Lion King” a classic and universal story, how they feel about their roles, and what to expect from upcoming performances.

Portraits-6 (1).jpg Grandling (Simba) says everyone should “expect the unexpected.” “They should be expecting to look in 360 degrees. It’s so three-dimensional, which is so fantastic,” he adds. Photo by JL JAVIER

The cast will not just be acting, but also puppeteering.

“In a normal show, in a stage show, you’re not forced to be puppeteering your character,” says Candida Mosoma, who plays Shenzi, a hyena. “You’re not bringing an animal to life. So the actual puppet itself, bringing it to life is quite difficult. You’ve got crutches in the front, then we have this heavy costume that we wear, then we have to maneuver the face of the puppet in tandem with our dialogue and give emotion to the character. That’s why we have a long rehearsal period of a month.” Or eight weeks, laughs Bjorn Blignaut, a new cast member who plays the hyena Banzai.

Lawrence (Scar) is likewise new to the cast. “Scar’s got all of this stuff and a mask, and it’s not just about acting here [points to face] but acting here [points area above the head],” he says. “The mask is an extension of his character, so I’m learning how all of that works. And I’m intrigued to learn even more.”

Set 1.jpg To put the animated film onstage required Julie Taymor’s avant-garde direction and flair for mask and puppetry. Photo by JL JAVIER

The performance is a ‘360 degree’ experience.

Grandling (Simba) says everyone should “expect the unexpected.” “They should be expecting to look in 360 degrees. It’s so three-dimensional, which is so fantastic. You’ll be watching onstage then you’ll be watching the left side and the right side and then everything comes together,” he says.

Mosoma (Shenzi) has a little tip for the audiences: “In the beginning of the show — I’m just going to give you a little spice — there is something so great that walks down the aisles, that will just put everybody in awe. Most of these animals [here] are just under scale, human scale,” she says, gesturing to the masks behind her. “But what you are going to see at the beginning of the show, when all the animals are coming in, what you’re going to see is gonna blow your mind. That’s all I’m gonna say!”

Portraits-10.jpg “I think ‘Circle of Life’ as an opening number in a musical is probably the most spectacular in any musical ever,” says Antony Lawrence, who plays Scar. Photo by JL JAVIER

The costumes, music, and set design provide a sensory feast.

When asked what will make the performance come alive, Grandling exclaims, “Thank God for Julie Taymor! She did a fantastic job with the costumes. Wonderfully made. You will be drawn. There will be no difference between what you saw on film and now onstage. Our movements make it come alive.”

Noxolo Dlamini, who plays Nala, says her costume is not extravagant. “But she does wear a beaded corset that might prove to be a bit challenging in rehearsal. I guess that’s why we have rehearsals, I will get used to it, singing and dancing in it,” she adds.

Set 3.jpg “We have this heavy costume that we wear, then we have to maneuver the face of the puppet in tandem with our dialogue and give emotion to the character,” says Candida Mosoma, who plays Shenzi, a hyena. Photo by JL JAVIER

It’s Dlamini’s first time to play Nala, after being part of the ensemble in a show in London. Her audition piece was “Shadowland,” one of the songs not included in the animated film. It’s one of her favorites. “It’s a very moving song. It’s a journey and you really get into it once Nala gets into it. She starts really reserved, realizing how the land is bare now. And then she moves into being sad, and sounding vulnerable too, realizing she needs to step up and fight for this land, and get things to where they used to be.”

Her other favorite is “Grasslands”: “This is when Simba and his father picture the grassland,” says Dlamini. “Mufasa tells Simba that, ‘Everything that you see is yours.’ As it starts, you see the grass coming on, but you see the performers, and they have grass on their heads, and the song goes [sings],woza mfana, oh woza.’ It has beautiful African sounds to it.”

Portraits-14 (1).jpg Noxolo Dlamini, who plays Nala, says her costume is not extravagant. “But she does wear a beaded corset that might prove to be a bit challenging in rehearsal. I guess that’s why we have rehearsals, I will get used to it, singing and dancing in it,” she adds. Photo by JL JAVIER

The spirit and story of “The Lion King” flows through the cast.

“It’s that infectious spirit,” says Michael Cassel, producer of the Michael Cassel Group (which manages the production), of what makes “The Lion King” musical stand out. “And everyone knows [in the background, a cast member impersonates a hyena] how incredible it is to be a part of this production. As you can tell,” he adds, laughing.

“That spirit carries through the rehearsal process and resonates with what’s onstage. And I think that’s what audiences react to. You feel as if you’re part of something special,” says Cassel. Associate director Anthony Lyn adds, “We looked for people who are not just great singers, actors, dancers, or whatever — [we looked for] people with tremendous spirit, tremendous joy.”

Portraits-2 (1).jpg Audiences, whether they’ve watched "The Lion King" previously in film or on stage, can relate to the story, says Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile, who plays Mufasa. Photo by JL JAVIER

Audiences, whether they’ve watched “The Lion King” previously in film or on stage, can relate to the story, says Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile, who plays Mufasa. “The thing about ‘The Lion King’ is it’s a story about someone who gets lost and has to find his way back home. He has to get deep down and find his strength. The story tells everyone to rise up and become the greatest version of themselves. Everyone kind of goes through that,” he says.

“Everyone should watch ‘The Lion King’ because it’s a family show. It’s good for everyone. The story is beautiful and everyone can relate to it. The music is stunning. You’ve got amazing actors. Honestly, we haven’t even started rehearsing,” Khanyile laughs, “but I know … just from singing ‘Circle of Life’ and that’s it. Incredible. Everyone’s in for a treat.”

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THE LION KING is presented by Michael Cassel Group and Concertus Manila in association with Disney Theatrical Productions and will now run from 18 March to 6 May 2018. Co-presented in Manila by Globe and Visa.

Tickets for “The Lion King” are still available through Ticketworld. The show runs until May 6 at The Theatre at Solaire.